26. Mercury Inferno Rising: Part 2
Mercury Inferno, part 2
* * *
Back inside Mecha's flagship, Metal Sonic himself was reviewing the footage from his earlier combat trials. He, in his new form, had managed to destroy dozens of mass-produced robots all in the same battle, and the damage he'd taken had already healed.
Mecha had always suspected as much. The only reason that accursed blue hedgehog had managed to defeat him before was because he was organic, and Mecha was not. Sonic was more agile, more flexible, and could heal himself faster. But now Mecha was stronger, and more agile, because he was a living being in his own right. And being made out of improved biometal, he could repair himself almost instantly. Perhaps, with a little work, he would even be able to use the Chaos Emeralds now.
He'd tried being organic before, once. Even as far back as Robotropolis, he'd almost succeeded when he'd built the Omega project, which the foolish Doctor Robotnik had found out about and used to clone that other hedgehog.
Which made it the second time Robotnik had tried duplicating Sonic.
Mecha was still furious about the first.
He studied himself in the reflection of his full-length window now, still admiring the novelty of his sleek, armored design. And feeling it work all around him. Fluids pulsed through his new channels, clean air swept through him and refreshed tired cells. He clenched one fist triumphantly, and felt the fibers in his arm tighten.
Being a robot had been a very binary experience. Barring any interference, he either saw or he didn't. There was pressure on his fingertips, or there was not. His internal sensors had told him when he was overstressing himself, or when it was cold outside his chassis. But he had only known these as abstract readouts. Now, he could know them as sensations.
He strode to the front of the top deck, panoramic windows surrounding him in this large empty space ahead of the control consoles. A crew of dumb robots manned the flying fortress behind him, and they made very little noise as they worked. Metal Sonic ignored them, and looked out over the bow of his ship. The runway tarmac was vast before him, and a whole slew of smaller vessels was parked there, seemingly going on into infinity.
Yet none of these were as important as he was. He had seen what one hedgehog could do, before. Robotnik's armies had meant little to Sonic. Or him. Even if these all were destroyed, he still would remain. And he would finally show Sonic who was superior.
It was then that something very odd occurred to him.
He went back to pondering his reflection in the window, blue metal with red eyes. The eyes swept over him, as he pondered this new thought.
Then he willed himself to turn back to raw biometal, shining and liquid, and from there to a just slightly different shape. When it reformed, he was still looking at his reflection. Except this time, something entirely different was looking back at him.
"Ssss ... " Even in the hedgehog's own voice, he couldn't bring himself to say it. Both fists clenched, even tighter than before.
He stared daggers at his reflection, unable to bring himself to look down instead. This was the being whose very existence mocked him ... or was it the other way around? Mecha did not care either way. He just wanted the hedgehog dead.
Now he could outperform him, outdistance him, even become him. Or anything else, for that matter. There was nothing Sonic had that he did not. Nothing. That glare turned into an imperious smirk. He folded the hedgehog's arms, and looked down at him condescendingly.
A flash of light behind him, and a surge of chaos energy that blew out some of the consoles. Metal Sonic instantly reverted to biometal, changing himself back as fast as he could. Then he turned around to see Mekion, holding on to the red chaos emerald in his organic hand and struggling to keep himself upright. It looked like his metal half was not responding.
Mecha's new organic self was being flooded with the emotions of shock, fear, and embarrassment, and he tried to calm down enough to pay attention to Shadow's whisperings. "Master," he said. "I am experiencing technical difficulties."
Mekion fell over with a metallic clang.
* * *
Big the cat was a slow thinker, and he spoke less than he thought. But as he sat on the roof of a box car with the wind ruffling his fur and Amy and Cream chatting beside him, he began to think. Froggy had been taken by a black hedgehog who looked a lot like that Shadow person. But Shadow was part robot, so he couldn't have taken Froggy. So where was Froggy now?
Big scratched his chin and looked at his companions. Their fur and clothing was drying out in the wind, as was his own. He ought to take care of them until they were reunited with their families. He didn't know much about kids, or girls in particular. Should he take them to the police? Probably. Maybe the police would help him find Froggy. But what could they do? How could you track a jet like the one the black hedgehog used?
The train left the canyon and sped through the trees. Big smelled water and his stomach growled. He hadn't eaten since that morning. He would have to do some fishing after they reached the train station.
"Will we get in trouble for riding on the train without a ticket?" asked Cream.
Amy frowned. "Uh oh, I didn't think of that. Big, is it against the law?"
"I'll bet it is," said Cream, ears drooping. "Then they'll take us to jail, and I'll never see mom or dad or Monty again."
Amy put an arm around her. "It's okay, Cream, nothing bad will happen. For one thing, we're minors."
"But what about Mr. Big?" asked Cream, looking at the cat. "He's a grownup. What if they arrest him?"
"We'll jump off and run as the train steps," said Amy. "Easy, then we'll find a phone and call your mom."
"I hope we can," said Cream. "I don't want mister Big to go to jail because of us. I'll bet he's worried about that frog, aren't you, mister Big?"
"Yeah," he said, "Poor Froggy."
They felt the train begin to slow, and buildings appeared beyond the trees. "Do we jump off?" asked Big.
"Not yet," said Amy, crawling to the edge of the traincar and peering ahead. "Wait until I give the signal." Cream and Big crawled to the edge and waited.
The train slowed still more, and finally pulled in among a dozen other sidings and traincars, with warehouses and the station forming walls on either side. There were humans waiting on either side as the train stopped and they spotted the stowaways at once. "I think it's too late to jump," said Big.
Amy looked at him with wide eyes. "I think so, too."
Cream began to cry, and cried as they climbed down the side of the car. She cried as Amy explained why they were on the train, and the humans looked at her with pity. Then they ushered them into a car and whisked off to the police in Rio Del Fuego.
* * *
Sally was attending a lecture, seated near the back in case her pager went off again and she had to leave. She heard to lobby doors open and leaned back to peer through the partially closed lobby hall doors. To her astonishment Knuckles, Tails, and Sonic were walking in, all with iced coffees. They looked a little rumpled, but unhurt. Tails and Knuckles wore visitors passes around their necks, and looked around the lobby with interest.
Sally looked at the speaker, decided that Sonic was more important and slipped out the doors. She hurried up to him, and he turned with a grin. "There ya are, Sal! Look who came to rescue me!" He gave her an offhand hug with a sidelong look at Knuckles, who was slurping his coffee and poking a potted palm to see if it was real. It was.
"Cushy place," Knuckles remarked. "I should bring Zephyer for a visit."
"Sonic, are you alright?" Sally asked. "They didn't hurt you, did they?"
"I'm fine, Sal," said Sonic with a grin. "They just wanted me to track emeralds for them. What they didn't count on was me beating them to one of them." He held up the violet emerald.
"Good for you," said Sally. Somehow the sight of more Chaos Emeralds made her heart sink. Any time all seven came together, Sonic went out and faced death. She didn't want him to go risk life and limb again, not after being kidnapped, too. She wanted to ask him what had happened, but was conscious of the drone of the lecturer's voice in the room behind her.
Sonic sensed her indecision and said, "C'mon Sal, stay with us. How many of these boring dudes can you listen to, anyway?"
Sally was caught in one of those moments where a choice could decide the course of the future. To one side was the call of duty, and the lecture hall with the other leaders of Mobius. To the other side was Sonic, inviting her to stay with him, something that seldom happened these days with both of then leading increasingly different lives. As she looked at him she felt herself encounter the bars of the mental cage she had built. She couldn't go with him. "But why not?" said the voice of the Freedom Fighter within her. "It's only senator Carda, and he's not saying anything new."
She was balanced between the two options, and Sonic waited, watching her, sensing the battle Sally was waging with herself. He held up his coffee. "I'll share."
There. How could she resist his charm? The cage was not yet complete--there were still gaps she could squeeze through. She smiled. "All right. Let's go out on the veranda--we can talk without bothering anyone."
As she walked out the rear doors of the lobby with her three companions, a snooty voice in her head said, "You'll pay for this, you know. The Mobian senators has already taken your power--next they'll retire your title because you're an unfit leader."
"Sue me," Sally thought. "Sonic is more important right now." The choice had been made, and the chips must fall where they may.
The veranda was a wood floored deck surrounding a heated swimming pool. It was fenced with a high stucco wall and screened with cedars for privacy. It was deserted, and the four picked the most comfortable chairs and dragged them into the shade of an umbrella. Sonic handed his coffee to Sally and said, "Okay, storytime. And I want to hear how you guys got Knux out here."
Sally and Tails grinned, and Knuckles leaned back and looked bored. "Start talking, Sonic. I don't have all day."
Sonic told about Shadow and Rouge, leaving out the part about Shadow strangling him. He also left out the part about Shadow making him crawl on his knees, because he still felt humiliated just remembering it. He told about Omega firing at the Cyclone, and Tails nodded. "So that's what that was. Scared us out of a day's growth, didn't it, Knuckles?"
Then Sonic related the battle with the Egg Hawk, and Tails and Knuckles added their sides. Sally listened, automatically analyzing their reports in light of the future missions and enemy movements. With a shock she realized she had slipped back into tactical planner mode. Did she love it that much?
"So anyway that's what went down," said Sonic. "What do you think, Sal?"
"It was a decoy," said Sally. "Drone pilot, air to air battle. Was there any other traffic in or out of the area at the time?"
Sonic looked at Tails and Knuckles. "You guys see any other jets?"
"No," said Tails, "but the train left before the ship launched, remember?"
"The train," said Sonic. "I didn't even think about it."
"It had a lot of cars," said Knuckles. "Who knows what was in them."
"Probably weapons," said Sally. "Seeing as it was a weapon testing facility. I wonder where the cargo is being shipped?"
"We'd better find out," said Sonic. "Amy, Cream, and Big were hitching a ride on it."
Sally's eyes widened. "Amy and Cream? What're they doing mixed up in this?"
"Remember Cream's chao?" said Sonic. "He was kidnapped by somebody disguised as Shadow."
Tails and Knuckles straightened. "That was the Chao who could see chaos fields, right?" said Tails. "Remember that email about a secret weapon?"
"We don't need another Chaos Storm on our hands," said Knuckles grimly. "Where would they take a Chao?"
"Do we know where Robotnik's recent base is?" asked Tails.
"No," said Sally. "He's constantly moving. He was out in the Samo desert, but that was a year ago."
"We ought to find out where that train goes," said Sonic. "It might lead us straight to him."
"I don't like the idea of Amy and Cream riding it," said Sally. "And who else?"
"Big the Cat," said Sonic. "You've never met him. Nice guy, but not real smart."
Sally stood up. "I'm going to call the shipping office. Be back in a minute." She hurried inside the hotel.
Sonic jumped up and paced around the pool. The things he had Chaos Seen were flashing through his head--mostly the one of Robotnik lying dead. So far he hadn't laid eyes on his old nemesis, and it bothered him. Was Robotnik dead? And if so, who had killed him?
Sonic wasn't exactly sorry if Robotnik died--for instance, if he received the death penalty after a trial--but the vision had been of Robotnik lying on the ground in such a way as to be undeniably dead. Murdered. But should he tell anyone? Chaos Sight was an unreliable way to tell the future. Nine-tenths of the things he had seen last time hadn't come true.
He circled the patio again, then returned to his seat. "Guys," he said to Knuckles and Tails. "When they made me Chaos See, I saw Robotnik dead."
They stared at him in horror. It shocked them just as it had him. "How could he be dead?" asked Tails. "Wouldn't we have known about it?"
"Hold on," said Knuckles. "This was only Chaos Sight. It might be true, or it might not."
"I thought of that," said Sonic. "But at the thing today, we saw a ship of Robotnik's, but no Robotnik himself. What if somebody else is in control, like Metal Sonic?"
"Mecha would just hunt you down personally," said Knuckles. "He wouldn't bother with remote ships and the like."
"And Robo Knux got fried, remember," said Tails. "Even though he got away, sneaking around as Robotnik isn't his style."
"Well, maybe it is Robotnik," said Sonic. "Sometimes he doesn't show himself until way later ... but still, like with the ARK, he was right in our faces the whole time."
"And this is still Chaos Sight you're talking about," said Knuckles. "You can't trust that as far as you can throw it."
The hotel door opened and Sally strode out to them, a bemused expression on her face.
"Well?" said Sonic as she sat down.
"Well," she said. "Amy, Cream and Big are at the downtown police station, being held for train-hopping. They can't reach Cream or Amy's parents, and it sounds like they're going to put Big in jail. They're in a real mess down there."
Sonic and Tails jumped up. "Let's throw their bail!" Sonic exclaimed. "Those guys don't need a record for hitching a ride on a train. Besides, I sort of told them to do it."
Sally blinked. "Oh. Well. All right. Let's go."
They walked off, and Knuckles stayed behind. Tails turned. "You coming, Knuckles?"
"Naw," he said. "I'll probably go visit the Chaotix. I'll meet you back here this evening."
Tails looked from Sonic to Knuckles and back, as if wanting Sonic to make Knuckles come. Then he shrugged and ran after Sonic.
* * *
Two Mobian senators, Mortho and Jik, watched Sally leave from a window in the lecture hall. "There goes our monarch," said Mortho with a sigh. "That hedgehog is bad for her. Look how irresponsible she's become."
"I know," said Jik. "We're going to have to confront her about it. She can't go on like this--she's scheduled to give another speech tonight."
"Yes," said Mortho. "I don't look forward to confronting her. She's very close to her friends from her Freedom Fighter years."
"But will she risk losing her position because of her friends? I doubt it."
"No ... either she loses the hedgehog, or she loses her title. She can't have both."
* * *
Vector lay sprawled in his desk chair in the detective's office, eyes closed, headphones turned up full blast. Charmy was sitting in a miniature beanbag with a handheld videogame system in front of his nose, and Espio sat on the floor in the lotus position, trying to meditate, but in reality dozing while sitting up. Mighty was reading a camera magazine, and the only sound came from Vector's headphones and a fly buzzing in the window.
The Chaotix were tired out from their adventure in the Amile canyon. Vector, Espio and Charmy had run most of the ten miles back to Rio Del Fuego, lugging the fifty-pound box between them. They hailed a taxi as soon as they could, and were now exhausted and taking a break. Mighty had spent the morning playing dispatch for his friends, and working on some other cases that needed attention. Now they had eaten a late lunch and turned the sign on the door to 'closed' for a while.
Espio toppled backward, caught himself with his tail, and opened his eyes. "Nuts. I'm falling asleep." He stood up and stretched. "Vector, would it be a breach of protocol to see what's in the box?"
The crocodile opened one eye. "You say something?"
"Yeah," said Espio. "I was just saying how you're the biggest moron in history, and embroidering some elaborate insults to your ancestry."
Vector switched off his walkman. "Okay, what?"
Mighty and Charmy snickered.
Espio pointed at the box in the corner. "Can we look inside?"
Vector eyed the box. "I don't think we should."
"But it might be an explosive or something," said Espio. "That was a weapons manufacturing place, so what if this is the stuff for a dirty bomb?"
Vector stared at Espio for a moment. "All right, you've convinced me." He opened a drawer, pulled out a pocketknife and stooped over the box. The others gathered around as Vector slid the tape holding the lid shut, and peeled back the flaps. The box was full of packing peanuts. Vector brushed them aside to reveal the gleam of metal.
"What is that?" said Charmy.
Mighty pushed forward. "Here, let me." He grasped the object and lifted it from the box, showering peanuts all over the floor, and set it on the desk. They all gazed at it.
"Doesn't look like a bomb to me," said Vector.
"No," said Mighty, "but what is it?"
It was a cube with a hole in one side. The backside was an internal engine, as shown by the vents in the sides and the swell of the paneling. It had adjustable feet on the bottom for support, and there were slots and plugs all over it.
"It looks like one of those baseball shooters," said Espio. "Except really souped-up."
"Is it a gun?" asked Charmy.
"Maybe a cannon," said Mighty, peering into the hole in the side. "But there's a lot of accessories that go with it, see?"
"Something tells me we're collecting the accessories," muttered Vector. "I'll bet the tube we got screws into this hole. It's about this size."
They were interrupted by a tap on the door. They turned to see Knuckles standing outside, peering in. "Hey, it's Knux!" exclaimed Charmy. "Should we let him see this?"
"Eh, why not?" said Vector. "He's part of the Chaotix, too."
Espio unlocked the door, and Knuckles stepped in. "Hey guys! Your sign says you're closed."
"Hey Knux!" they chorused. Vector added, "Lunch break."
Knuckles nodded and spotted the machine on the desk. "What in the world is that?"
"That's what we were trying to figure out," said Mighty.
They let Knuckles examine it, hoping he might identify it, but he was as mystified as they were. "No idea what this is," he said. "It looks like a launcher of some kind, but with this motor back here..." He trailed off, shaking his head.
"We're supposed to deliver it to a client," said Vector. "Put it back in the box, Mighty."
The armadillo did so, and they gathered up the peanuts and heaped them on top. Knuckles watched them. "I couldn't stand a business like this. Too mysterious for me."
"Did you find Sonic?" asked Espio, breaking a peanut into fragments.
"Yep," said Knuckles. "He'd escaped like we knew he would. He's running around with Tails and Sally right now."
The Chaotix breathed a sigh of relief. "At least that's settled," said Vector. "Now, if only he'd stay out of trouble--"
"Impossible," snorted Knuckles. "He thrives on trouble."
"Don't we all?" said Vector with a grin. "What're you so grouchy for, anyway?"
"I don't want to be here," muttered the echidna. "My place is on my island."
"So go home!" said Espio. "Nobody's making you stay."
"Maybe I will," said Knuckles, looking out the glass door. "Is that you guys' car out there?"
"It's a bobsled," said Mighty. "We're fixing it up."
"Speaking of which," said Vector, "could you sell us a chaos engine when you get one built?"
Knuckles glared. "How do you know about my chaos engine stuff?"
The Chaotix grinned at each other, and Vector tapped his forehead. "Elementary, dear Watson. You've been collecting parts for ages now, and we used to live on the Floating Island too, you know."
Knuckles shrugged and turned away. "I have to get a prototype working first."
"Great." Vector rubbed his hands together. "We'll never have to buy gas again!"
"Gas is cheap compared to how much a chaos engine will go for," said Knuckles. "You'd better get lots of clients." He pushed open the door. "I'm outta here."
"Come visit again!" said Charmy. Knuckles waved and descended the steps to the street.
"What's eating him?" said Mighty.
"Isn't it obvious?" said Espio. "He misses Zephyer." The four snickered to themselves.
Vector picked up the Client's communicator and looked at it. "He'll send us after a new part immediately, I'll bet. You guys feel up to it, or do we wait until tomorrow? For all he knows, we're having trouble escaping from Rovieg."
"That would be dishonest," said Mighty. "If you don't want to hunt a part 'til tomorrow, just tell the guy."
"I'm game," said Espio. "Besides, Rio Del Fuego at night is loads of fun."
"I'm good, too," said Charmy.
Vector nodded. "All right, but you asked for it." He flipped on the com. "Mister? You there? This is Vector."
"Ahh, Vector," said the Client, sounding pleased. "You're safe?"
"Back at the office with the box," said Vector. "Safe and sound."
"Perfect," said the Client. "I've been in contact with my supplier in Metrocard. The next package awaits you there."
"Metrocard?" Vector mouthed at his friends in disbelief. Aloud he said, "That's awfully far from here, sir."
"You'll be compensated for all travel fees," said the Client dismissively. "Do you have a paper handy? I'm going to give you directions."
Vector snatched a notepad and pen from the desk. "Yep."
"All right. You are to take route 199 to the junction at 56, then follow that south to Anabaro Boulevard. 733 Anabaro is where you stop. Ask for Rufus Lynxara at the front desk. He will help you."
Vector wrote this down and said, "Got it. Anything else?"
"Leave immediately," said the Client. "Today is Wednesday. I must have all the items by Friday evening at the latest."
"Okay, leaving now," said Vector. "I'll be in touch." He clicked off the com to see everyone staring at him. "What?"
"Vector!" whispered Mighty. "That email!"
"What about it? Oh..." Vector trailed off and they all looked at the calender. Tails had received the email on Tuesday. It had given them four days, and Friday was the fourth day.
"Coincidence?" said Charmy.
"Maybe," said Espio. "Or maybe not."
Vector clipped the com to his belt. "Come on, there's not a moment to lose."
* * *
Metal Sonic's flagship was vast. Half the rooms were filled with machinery, and the other half were empty. It had been designed by Robotnik, so he wasn't sure what all of them were for yet.
While his robots cleaned up the bridge, Metal Sonic helped Mekion to the rooms he'd been using for his own purposes, in back near the engineering section. These were a series of small alcoves around one large, main room, with what looked like a swimming pool in it.
It was actually shielding for a nuclear reactor, and the top was glassed over so nobody would fall in. Monty still thought it looked like a swimming pool, though. He could just see the end of it, from his cage in one of the back rooms. He thought it looked cheerful somehow.
He listened to Metal Sonic work, as he repaired Mekion. The tools didn't make much noise, and Monty could just barely hear Shadow talk.
"How long will this take, Master?"
"About two minutes. The damage is not extensive."
Shadow paused for a moment before speaking, as if considering what he was about to say. "When I teleported in, Master, I thought I saw-"
"The hedgehog was on board your ship, Master. And then he turned into you."
Monty strained to hear him. He talked real quiet.
"You. Were. Malfunctioning." The sounds of repair had stopped. Mecha was seething. "You were damaged, and your organic side was hallucinating."
A smack of metal on metal. "Do not EVER suggest such a thing again, Mekion. Do you understand?"
His response was too quiet for Monty to hear him.
The chao started pacing the length of his cage. Whoever 'Mekion' was, he didn't see any reason not to trust him. So Metal Sonic had turned into Sonic. How?
The sounds of working with tools came from outside for another minute or two. Then Mecha told Mekion to stand, and there was a metallic clank as he regained his footing.
"Return to your duties," Mecha said. "I have more fully insulated you against the emerald's powers, so you ought to be able to teleport back."
"Yes, Master." Pause. "Chaos relocate!"
There was a red flash, and the chaos field in the room was swept toward the far end where they were for a second. Monty's eyes went wide. No wonder this guy was so interested in chaos fields!
More footsteps outside, after a few seconds. Metal Sonic went over to the aquarium, right across the room from Monty's cage, and examined the frog for a moment.
The chao hesitated. He wasn't sure if what he was planning was a good idea or not.
Metal Sonic began to walk away, and Monty cleared his throat. "Hello?"
Metal Sonic stopped, just past the edge of the door so the chao couldn't see him. "Yes?"
"I didn't know you could shapechange," Monty said. "Chao can only do that if we have a Chaos Emerald to use. How do you do it?"
"How do you know I can shapechange?" If Monty could have seen him, he would have known he was clenching his fists.
"I can see it in the room's chaos field," Monty lied, trying to get Mecha to admit it. "You're probably really good at it, too. Can I see?"
The Mecha-bot stepped back to the doorway and faced him, his arms folded. "Alright, little chao." His voice was almost casual. "Tell me what you would have me change into."
"How about ... " Monty almost said Sonic, but thought better of it. "How 'bout a rabbit?"
Mecha tapped one foot on the floor for a few seconds, as if he were impatient. Then he liquefied, turning into a bright quicksilvery fluid, and reformed into Cream in seconds.
He looked exactly like Monty's owner, too, except for the chaos field and the lifeless expression on his face. Cream smiled a lot, but Metal Sonic didn't even look sad or upset as her. He just looked.
"Okay." The chao nodded his approval. "Very realistic." He didn't want to let on that his portrayal was off.
"Of course it is."
"Can you do foxes?"
He went quicksilver again, and reformed into an equally lifeless version of Tails. The fox's twin tails hung limply on the floor.
"I have work to do, chao." Tails folded his arms. "Are you sufficiently amused?"
"Uh ... " Better not push his luck. Something else occurred to him, though, and he thought it'd be good to test it. "How 'bout Destro?"
"What does he look like?"
"Well, he's a fox. He's only got one tail, but he wears a helmet and a jetpack, and he carries a sword." Monty wanted to see if he could do equipment as well. "He's older than Tails too, and he looks more rugged."
Mecha-tails watched him for a moment. Then he had his first facial expression. His eyes narrowed. "Who is Destro?"
All of a sudden, Monty realized his mistake. "A friend of Cream's?" he bluffed.
The robot liquefied again, stepping forward and thrusting his arm through the bars. When he'd reformed into himself, his hand held the chao tight.
It hurt. "Tell me who he is, or you will wish you had."
Monty squirmed, and tried to escape. "I told you, he's a friend of Cream's!" A sweatdrop formed on the chao's forehead.
"He's a soldier, or something. He lives in town. I think he's training the other people there."
Metal Sonic said nothing, and Monty began sweating all over.
"Mecha-bot four has dealt with him before," Metal Sonic told him. "I want to know how and under what circumstances."
"Destro beat him," Monty said.
"I don't know, I didn't watch."
Mecha squeezed tighter. Monty gave a chao scream, as his insides began to squish together. "TELL me how he beat him."
He knew it was bad to tell him. He knew it would get people hurt. But he was scared, and Metal Sonic was hurting him. "He uses chaos fields! He can sense other people's chaos. And he can absorb it. And the Lightgiver tells him what to do-"
"Who is the Lightgiver?"
"I don't know!" Now he was starting to cry.
The Mecha-bot released him, and he ran to the far corner of his cage, almost throwing up on the way. He felt burning hot, especially his face, but for some reason he couldn't stop shivering.
"Thank you for co-operating," Mecha told him, and he looked back over his shoulder and into his glowing red eyes. "If Destro defeated my 'brother,' then he may be an ally. More than likely, however, he thinks of himself as a hero, in which case I will destroy him."
Another black-and-red hedgehog had been standing next to the cage, and had remained expressionless the whole time. Mecha addressed it. "Bring dinner for this chao, C-5. Monty, you may have extra dessert."
He walked out, the black hedgehog following. And Monty curled up in back of the cage, and went back to crying.
* * *
"Shadow?" called Rouge softy. "Shad--I mean Mekion, where are you?"
Rouge and Omega were hidden in the brush that rimmed the Amile canyon. Below them, the Rovieg facility swarmed with GUN robots and personnel, and their calls and crackling radios echoed off the canyon walls. Rouge had barely made it to cover before they arrived, and found Omega already sitting among the bushes. "You're not attacking?" she asked in astonishment.
"No," he said. "They are not Robotnik's robots. I promised to harm no one else."
Rouge crouched beside the robot, thankful for his faithfulness. She hadn't expected him to keep his word--the flicky inside him must be a decent sort, despite its programming. "Where's Shadow?" she asked.
"I don't know," said Omega. "Scans do not detect him in the area."
Uh oh. Suddenly Rouge was anxious. What if he was down in the factory somewhere? She had lost track of him during his battle with the Egg Hawk, for he was teleporting too much. What if he had damaged Mekion with all that chaos energy? What if he was lying in some corner somewhere, unable to move or help himself?
The bat began to creep through the brush, calling for Shadow in a whisper. She was worried and exasperated. The big idiot, running off like that and racing Sonic. Racing, of all things! Of course, he and Sonic had been rivals from the start, so such a thing shouldn't surprise her. And playing chicken with a train ... she shook her head. One of these days, he'd get himself killed by taking on a challenge too big for him. And they still hadn't found the chaos emerald.
Rouge froze, eyes narrowing. Sonic had been teleporting all over the place, too. Sonic must have found the emerald! She cursed him under her breath. Those were HER emeralds!
Was that a twinkle of light back in the trees? She crept in that direction. "Shadow?" There--a black figure crumpled on the ground. His head moved as she stooped over him, and his organic eye blinked. "Are you all right?" she asked, hoisting him to his feet.
"Yes," whispered Shadow. "I went to my Master for repairs, and I have returned."
"Your Master?" said Rouge in surprise. "You were hurt that bad?"
"I want some chaos shielding for Mekion," Shadow told her. "At present we lack the knowledge for proper shielding. When my Master has a breakthrough in his research, I will receive the upgrade."
Shadow didn't answer.
Rouge stared at him to make him uncomfortable. "Metal Sonic is doing research on chaos?"
Shadow still didn't answer and gazed at the trunk of a tree in front of him.
Mekion reactivated, his other eye flickering on. He straightened and stepped away from Rouge with a look of disgust. "Do not question Shadow about my Master's doings. They are secret. For now."
"Oh?" said Rouge. "If you're so much in control, why do you need Shadow at all?"
Mekion turned away without answering and crept off to join Omega. Rouge followed him, fuming at both halves of Shadow for his cold arrogance.
She reached the robots and sat on the ground in the brush. "Sonic got the emerald," she said. "There's no use in staying here any longer. Mekion, do you remember where any others are?"
"No," he whispered. "So that's how Sonic was teleporting. I should have known he would find it."
Rouge unsnapped a pouch on her belt and pulled out the orange chaos emerald. She held it out to Mekion, who looked at it but make no move to take it. Omega watched in silence. "Chaos See again," said Rouge. "And find another emerald."
Mekion glared at her. "Do it yourself. I have no wish to put myself at the mercy of that power again."
"I can't do it," said Rouge. "You have to."
Slowly Mekion extended his organic hand and took the emerald. He held it a moment without looking at it, then sighed and bent his head over it. Within ten seconds his muscles locked and he froze, Seeing. Rouge timed him with her watch, and at 45 seconds she pulled the emerald out of his hands. He drew a sharp breath, as if about to scream, then exhaled and relaxed, eyes closing.
"Well?" said Rouge. "Did you see one?"
"Yes," he whispered without opening his eyes. "It's in the bottom of a sewer drain with a grating right above it."
Rouge's heart sank. That could be anywhere.
Mekion opened his eyes. "The water in the drain turned orange, and steam was pouring out of the vent. But it wasn't lava."
Orange water. Rouge remembered the ARK with a shudder. "Do you know where it was?"
A corner of Mekion's mouth curled upward. "Yes. Don't you?"
She looked at him, thinking. Orange water didn't ring any bells, but she didn't plan to admit it. "You lead the way," she said. "We need to get out of here before GUN searches the canyon rim."
Still smiling, Mekion lifted his red emerald. They three joined hands and vanished in a flash of light.
* * *
Amy sat with her hands in her lap, clenching and unclenching her fingers. Cream sat beside her, curled up in the chair. The police station was noisy and crowded, and people moved about on business, ignoring the two girls waiting in the corner. Big the Cat had been taken into a back room half an hour before, and Amy was worried about him. Big was harmless and not very bright, and he wouldn't understand what was going on.
She felt responsible for their predicament. Sonic had told them to follow the train tracks, but it was Amy's idea to jump onto a passing boxcar from the clifftop. Maybe they would call Cream's mother and they could explain all this. After all, they had been stranded out there ...!
The front doors opened, and Amy looked up. To her astonishment Sonic walked in, followed by Tails and Sally. Sonic's eyes swept the room and came to rest on Amy and Cream. Amy sat up and poked Cream's ear, relief flooding her. Sonic and Tails, and Sally, too! Everything would be all right now.
"Hi Sonic!" said Amy as he walked up.
"Hi Amy, Cream," said Sonic. "What's happening? Where's Big?"
"They're trying to call our parents," said Amy. "They took Big in the back. Sonic, he doesn't understand this stuff!"
She gave him a pleading look, and Sonic nodded. "Gotcha. Tails, wait here with them."
Tails sat down beside Cream, and Sonic and Sally went to the desk to talk to the officer on duty.
"You guys okay?" asked Tails.
"Yeah," said Amy and Cream.
"We rode the train without a ticket, and now we're in trouble," said Amy. "I hope they let us go."
Cream stared at Tails and put the end of one ear in her mouth. Tails smiled at her, and she ducked her head.
Amy was too busy watching Sonic to notice. "Do you think they'll let Big go?"
"Sure," said Tails. "They'll issue your parents a citation, and I'll bet we can get Big off. He had no idea it was illegal, right?"
"I guess." Amy was still watching Sonic and Sally at the counter. Sonic was frowning and talking in a low voice. He looked at Sally and she said a few words, lifting her ID tag. The officer nodded and vanished into the back.
Tails had seen, too. "Sally's got some clout, looks like. Being the princess will get stuff moving."
"I hope so," said Amy.
Cream continued to stare at Tails. It made him uncomfortable, so he stood up and walked a few paces away.
The officer emerged from the back, leading Big the Cat. Big was still carrying his fishing rod, and looked tired and grumpy. Sally signed some papers, and the let Big sit down with Amy and Cream. "You okay?" Amy asked him.
"I don't like this place," said Big with a growl. "I want to go home."
Sonic and Sally walked up, looking triumphant. "Got you off," said Sonic. "We explained what happened and Sally signed the release papers. You won't get fined this time. Just don't hitchhike on trains anymore."
"We won't," said Cream and Amy. Cream looked at Tails and dropped her eyes.
Sally introduced herself to Big, then said, "Anybody want some dinner?"
Big's face lit up, and he eagerly rose and followed the rest of the group outside.
As they crossed a street and headed for a restaurant, Sally whispered to Sonic, "I have to give a lecture at seven. Do you think you and Tails can manage?"
Sonic looked at her in dismay. "You're leaving me to babysit? No way!"
"Sonic, I'm sorry," said Sally, checking her watch. "I have to eat and run. I can't reschedule this late."
Sonic sighed. "Do what you gotta do. But you owe me one."
As they stepped into the restaurant, Tails whispered in Sonic's other ear, "Sonic, Cream keeps staring at me! What do I do?"
Sonic looked at Cream to see her watching Tails with a rapt expression. Sonic grinned. "She has a crush on you."
"I know!" Tails hissed. "What do I do?"
"Just be nice. I've put up with Amy all these years--you'll survive Cream."
"Oh, thanks a lot," said Tails, ears flattening. "You're no help."
Tails was edgy and didn't relax until the food arrived. Then all the Mobians ate as if starved. Sonic's metabolism had burned off all his extra calories during his adventures of that day, and he ate three servings of shrimp salad. Big the Cat ate a huge portion of fish, and Cream and Amy had two helpings each of carrot casserole. Tails feasted on steak, but Sally only picked at her salad. She was rehearsing her lecture in her head, and hating herself for abandoning Sonic like she was going to. But she had no choice. The conference took precedence over everything.
Sally left halfway through dinner, and Sonic watched her go with a wilting sensation inside him. Nothing he did for her was ever good enough. He had helped her, supported her, come to this conference with her ... he remembered how she had left a lecture earlier--at least she had done that for him. He reminded himself that he couldn't expect much attention while she was working, but still. Maybe she didn't really care, and he was kidding himself by courting her.
He finished his dinner in silence, and only Tails noticed. Everyone else was chattering about their adventure of the day.
After dessert, Sonic and Tails escorted Cream, Amy and Big to a hotel for the night. They hadn't been able to reach Cream's mother, and the phones in Knothole were down because of a storm, so Amy's couldn't be contacted. The two girls were on their own for a day or two.
As Sonic and Tails left the hotel, Tails heaved a sigh of relief. "Am I glad to get away from them! Cream was driving me nuts!"
Sonic grinned. "And here you've laughed all these years about Amy following me around."
"I'll never laugh again," said Tails, shaking his head.
Sonic shrugged. "You don't have much to worry about. She's like, eight or something. She'll get over you eventually."
"Yeah, that's what Sally told you about Amy," said Tails.
"One difference," said Sonic. "Cream lives in Central Mobius and Amy lives here."
Tails lit up. "Oh yeah!"
The sun was sinking into the ocean, painting a shimmering red path across the waves, and Sonic looked toward the beach with longing. There would be no entertaining Sally tonight. Besides, he was tired and comfortably full. He didn't feel like running. "Hey Tails, want to visit the Ocean Palace casino? I haven't been to that one yet."
"You have any money?" Tails asked.
"Gave my last cash to the girls," said Sonic. "Let's hit the UA building real quick and I'll grab some more from my backpack."
They trotted several blocks back to the UA building, showed their passes to the guards, and entered. There they found Knuckles standing outside the lecture hall doors, listening. He looked around as they walked up. "Hush," he said in a low voice. "She's giving a darned good speech. Listen."
Sally was giving an impassioned speech about racial equality, and how all sentient races deserved the same justice, whether they had fur or clothing. She didn't mention Amy, Cream or Big, but Sonic knew what was on her mind. He listened to her with sudden pride--that was HIS Sally in there knocking their socks off!
He forgave her for deserting him at dinner, and was proud just to know her. She knew her stuff, all right. How could she even think about hanging around with him? Sonic was nobody with no position or importance. She was a politician through and through, and he was a fleet-footed warrior. That was all. He really was kidding himself by courting her. He had lost her years ago. Lost her? Heck, he'd never had her.
With a slow sadness growing in him, Sonic listened to the rest of the speech, enjoying the rise and fall of her voice as Sally talked about equality, liberty and justice for all.
As she finished and applause filled the hall, Knuckles said, "Did you get the business with Amy cleared up?"
"Yep," said Sonic as they walked out on the veranda. It was dark by this time, and multicolored lights from the surrounding casinos illuminated the sky, drowning the stars. "They're camped out in a hotel for the night."
"Did you guys find out anything about that train?"
Sonic smacked his forehead and looked at Tails. "No, I totally forgot."
"Me too," said Tails. "Think it's too late to call and ask?"
"Don't worry about it," said Knuckles, with a sudden smile. "I went down there myself."
"You did?" Sonic stared. "After being a grouch about this whole thing?"
"Hey, I'm here, so I might as well make myself useful," said the echidna with a shrug.
"So what'd you find out?" asked Sonic.
Knuckles sat down in a deck chair and leaned back, looking smug. "They couldn't give me details on the freight, but the train was fully loaded and headed for the station in Metrocard. There it's scheduled to be picked up by a subdivision of a company called RedStar."
Sonic looked at Tails. "What do you think, weapons master?"
"Depends on what RedStar is," said the fox. "They might be another weapons lab."
"Nope, I looked 'em up," said Knuckles, looking even more smug. "They're an alternative energy company."
"Why would an energy company buy weapons?" said Sonic, raising any eyebrow.
Tails frowned. "Not for anything good. Not a whole trainload."
"Well, let's check it out!" said Sonic. "In the morning."
"Right," said Tails, yawning. "I'm zonked. I'm going back to my hotel."
"See you, Tails!" said Sonic as the fox trotted off.
He looked at Knuckles. "I'm gonna hit the sack, too. Where're you staying?"
"I'm not spending my money here," said Knuckles. "I brought a portable teleporter."
Sonic smirked. "Can't stand to leave the island and the wife for more than a day, huh?"
Knuckles shrugged. "You wouldn't understand. The longer I'm away from my island, the louder its call gets. And that's apart from Zephyer being ticked off when I don't tell her we've found you. She was going to come after you herself."
"Sally must have been very convincing when she called you."
"Sally nothing," said Knuckles. "Zeff and I tracked you with the Master Emerald and saw Shadow kicking you around."
Sonic flushed. "You saw that?"
Knuckles nodded. "Kind of humiliating to get tied up and have to put up with Shadow. Made me really mad."
Sonic glanced around the deserted courtyard and lowered his voice. "You won't tell anybody, will you?"
"Don't worry," said Knuckles. "I'll smash his face for you sometime."
"I appreciate the offer." Sonic stretched. "I'm off. You coming back tomorrow?"
"Probably. I'm interested against my will."
Sonic smiled. "Glad to hear it. Ciao."
He left, and Knuckles went to retrieve the teleporter from where he had hidden it.
* * *
Destro the fox sat in the corner booth at the restaurant, dejected.
He was in the back, right next to the counter, and the smell of hot grease was permeating the air. After the large hamburger he'd eaten it was only making him nauseous, but he didn't have the energy to get up. It was too hot indoors, nd there was no air conditioner.
He'd already cleared off his table. The only things left on it were a salt shaker, a rusted napkin dispenser and a glass ketchup bottle with the lid stuck on. The tables and benches were wooden and scratchy, and covered in chipping white paint. This restaurant was the only one in Carrotseed that catered to carnivores, and they didn't see a whole lot of business.
Destro folded his arms on the table and rested his chin on them. He'd taken his helmet off already, and a slight breeze from outdoors was ruffling the fur on top of his head.
He looked up and across the room, to the only other occupied table. A group of elderly foxes and rabbits were sitting around it, playing some sort of card game. They were all talking and laughing, and looked to be having a good time. More importantly, they showed no signs of stopping.
He sighed. This day was never going to be over.
The Lightgiver had told him to find people in Carrotseed who has chaos fields, and train them. So far he'd found only two, and one of them was a teenaged girl who lived with her boy-crazy sister. The elderly rabbit had seemed a far better choice.
Of course, he also hadn't been all that interested. He'd listened with a smile on his face, as Destroy had tried to explain.
"We-ell," he'd said, and taken his time about it. "I guess I could try it."
The fox had given a sigh of relief.
"Meet me at the Salad Bar and Grill," he'd said. "Tomorrow, five-ish."
When he'd arrived at four-thirty, Robert -- that was the rabbit's name -- had been playing cards. Now it was almost seven.
"Would you like something more to drink?" The rabbit waitress had just come out from behind the counter, and stopped next to his table. "Water, Coke, iced tea ... "
She wasn't going to go away if he said nothing. "Water."
"Alright, then." The fox's ear pivoted, as she went back behind the counter. He did not look away from the table.
A few seconds later, someone came in through the open doorway. Destro's eyes flicked upward briefly, to see who it was. Then he did a double-take. "Sonic?"
The hedgehog walked inside, past the table where the others were playing cards. They didn't take much notice. Jazz Jackrabbit was the local celebrity, and nobody there knew Sonic well enough to recognize him.
Aside from Destro, anyway. The two of them had met before. He stopped at his table, arms at his side, face expressionless. "You are the fox known as Destro, are you not?"
"Yes." He raised his eyebrows.
"I must speak with you outside. It is important."
Destro glanced about himself, and his ears pricked upwards. "Are you alright?"
"N ... no. That is why I must speak with you. Please come with me now."
The fox hesitated a second, then nodded. He slid out from behind the table and stood up, and as soon as he did so Sonic started walking away. He grabbed up his helmet, and hurried to follow him.
"Hey, where 'ya going?" Robert looked up at him, from his card game.
"I'll be back in a minute." Sonic had just gone outside. Destro squinted at the sunlight, and hurried to strap on his helmet.
* * *
Metal Sonic continued walking for a few seconds, before he realized that Destro was not following him.
Groaning inwardly, he turned around. The fox had just put his helmet back on, and was now standing still with his eyes closed and his head lowered.
None of the files about Robo Knuckles' fight with him had mentioned this kind of behavior. Mecha walked back over to where he was, self-consciously looking around himself, and over his shoulder.
This was the main street of Carrotseed, in the center of town, where most of the above-ground buildings were. It had all of four traffic lights, and no real traffic to speak of. A few pedestrians walked past them, taking no notice of Mecha but sparing the odd glance for the armored fox.
Mecha stopped in front of him. "What are you doing?" he asked, in Sonic's voice.
"Consulting with the Lightgiver." He opened his eyes, and looked back up. "You are not who you appear to be."
That startled him, and it registered on his face without his knowing it. "Of course I am!" he managed to say.
"Your expression hasn't even changed until now."
Mecha thought about that for a second. Then, trying to figure it out as he went, he made the corners of his mouth turn upwards in a smile that almost looked natural.
Destro bowed his head again. But only for a second. "Tell me your name," he said, after he'd looked back up.
Mecha blinked. The smile disappeared. "You know my name," he said. He was beginning to feel uncomfortably warm, and a drop of fluid was appearing on his forehead.
"I do." Destro nodded. "Now say it yourself. Out loud."
"Sss," he tried. "Ssss ... sssson ... "
Mecha did not know it, but his face was turning red with embarrassment.
One hand clenched into a fist. The other grabbed Destro's arm, and pulled him forward. "You will come with me now," he snarled.
Destro hit him.
The storefront window shattered, as an armored fox had just flew through it. The waitress gasped, and Robert turned around in his chair to look as all the other Mobians stared.
Destro regained his feet, drawing his sword as he did so. He had a few glass cuts, but his armor had taken most of it.
Outside, "Sonic" stood glaring for a few seconds. Then he stepped over the windowframe and walked inside. "You have data about chaos fields," he said, with a hint of a warble in his voice. "I require it. Come with me now, or I will make you come."
The fox didn't move, so Sonic came forward. Destro charged and slashed at him with his sword, but it passed right through him as if he were made of liquid. He caught Destro's hand on the other side, and twisted it around so that he fell over. Then he stomped on his wrist, and made him drop his sword.
"Yield," the hedgehog demanded.
Destro planted his left hand on the ground to steady himself, and brought his foot up to kick Sonic in the stomach. He let go, the breath knocked out of him, as Destro grabbed up his sword and leaped back into a defensive position.
The fox winced. His wrist hurt.
Sonic lunged at him, but slipped on a wet spot on the floor, lost his balance and fell. The elderly foxes and rabbits snickered, some of the tension having gone out of the room, and Robert just smiled.
The hedgehog saw this as he picked himself back up. "Stop that, NOW."
They stopped. Robert's smile, however, turned into a smirk.
"You think this is funny?" Sonic's eyes narrowed. "Prepare to be mauled."
Destro stared, horrified, as the not-quite-Sonic reared back and pounced at Robert. He instantly turned on his jet pack to intercept.
But Robert's chair collapsed at that moment, and Sonic went flying over him. A fraction of a second too late, Destro smacked into the wall, and Sonic crashed into a table, demolishing it and getting buried underneath a ton of wood.
Destro stood back up slowly, his head spinning, as the other Mobians helped Robert back up and Sonic thrashed about in the newly-made woodpile.
"This cannot stop me," he hissed, tossing aside the back of a bench and standing up to his full height. "Nothing can-"
But as he was talking, the cover came off of a rack of fluorescent tubes. The tubes came loose at one end and swung down to smack Sonic in the face, making the end of his rant sound nasal.
Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, all of the french fries caught on fire at once.
The foxes and rabbits all burst out laughing, the waitress ran in back to help, and Destro just stared open-mouthed.
Mecha staggered backwards, holding both hands to his nose. He tasted something odd, something salty and a little metallic, dripping down into his throat.
There was that feeling again, the same one he'd gotten every time he'd tried to beat that hedgehog and failed. He was humiliated and furious, and he wanted to kill them all.
But something was telling him that it wouldn't work. Something more than despair. A gut feeling, perhaps? The ... other organics put much stock in those. If that's what it was, then he would be foolish to ignore it.
Swallowing his pride and some of his rage, he stepped out of the pile of wood he was in and walked past everyone out of the restaurant, his face turning red even as he tried to ignore their laughter. When he got to the open doorway, he turned around to face Destro.
"You WILL die," he told him, and glared.
A bicyclist drove through a puddle just then, and splashed him with muddy water.
Mecha ran out of town as fast as he could, and imagined what he would do to them afterwards.
The cookstaff finished putting out the fire, and the waitress stood behind the counter tsk'ing at the mess. The restaurant owner was out in front of the building talking with the police, who'd told everyone else to stay inside until they were ready to get their statements. And the foxes and rabbits didn't mind, as they still had a card game to finish.
Destro noticed the police Mobians giving him suspicious looks. It was clear that they thought he and his weaponry were to blame. He hoped it wouldn't take him too long to prove otherwise, and that the others would vouch for him.
So much for chaos field training. The armored fox went up to the counter, and spoke to the waitress. "Can I please use the phone?"
"Oh?" She looked up, having been lost in thought. Then she nodded. "Sure thing. It's behind the counter, dear."
He went around to it, picked up the receiver and dialed, trying to ignore the fact that there was an attractive young female beside him. Meanwhile, Robert laughed, and raked another pile of plastic chips towards himself.
All the other players had just been cleaned out.
* * *
Omega walked along, listening to Mekion argue with himself. It was night in Metrocard, West Mobius, and Mekion was leading them to where he had seen the chaos emerald. Rouge was riding on Omega's shoulder with her arms crossed, miffed about not leading.
Metrocard, being a Mobian city, was crisscrossed with winding, curving streets, and the architecture resembled trees, mountains and other shapes from nature. Silent hovercars flew everywhere, and between the buildings were wide park-like avenues full of trees and flowers. A human would have found it bewildering, but the Mobians were right at home, finding the winding streets intuitive.
Mekion hardly paid attention to the directions, only looking up once in a while to check a street sign. He was walking with his eyes on the ground, completely given over to inner conflict. Omega could hear Mekion's side, but not Shadow's, because an organic brain did not operate on robot frequencies.
Mekion was saying, "You have no say in the matter, Shadow. Retrieving this emerald causes no harm to the Master." There was a pause, and Mekion turned his head as if physically listening to another person, instead of the other half of his own mind. Then he shook his head and said, "You and your failing memory. Emeralds are dangerous, yet you don't know why. Our red chaos emerald is extremely useful."
He stopped as if interrupted, then snarled, "Your fading memories are a byproduct of your own inferior cell structure. It has nothing to do with chaos power."
Omega said, "Prolonged chaos energy is harmful to organics and robots alike."
"You stay out of this," snapped Mekion. "You are an obsolete robotic model that requires a pilot. You know nothing."
Omega lifted an arm, rotated attachments to gauss rifle, and fired four rounds at Mekion's feet. Mekion sprang aside and whirled to face Omega, teeth bared.
Omega said, "I have the superior firepower. Remember that before you insult me again."
"Stop it, you two," said Rouge, who could not hear their network chatter, but knew they were communicating. "We're supposed to be a team, and we won't get anywhere if you keep fighting."
"This is not over," snarled Mekion over the network, and he whirled and stalked onward.
Omega followed him and said softly to Rouge, "He provokes me at his own risk. He is one of the robots I plan to destroy, and the only reason I do not is because of your interference."
"Leave him alone," said Rouge. "He's miserable enough without you stalking him."
"I do not stalk him," said Omega, increasing his pace to a jog as Mekion swept ahead in a skater's crouch. "We are wired to the same frequency, and his arguing with Shadow annoys me."
Rouge frowned. "He argues with Shadow?"
"Everything. Shadow cannot guide Mekion because of Mekion's ninety-percent control, so they argue and bicker."
Rouge wanted to laugh. Mekion was unstable and pitiful at the same time, dangerous though he was. And Omega wanted to kill him. She had to continue playing politics between them or they would destroy each other.
Omega caught up to Mekion along the rear of a tall white building with curves instead of corners. Mekion was kneeling over a grating in the street, and Omega strode up. Rouge jumped off his shoulder and peered into the grating. Heat struck her in the face, and she saw an orange glow twenty feet down. The orange water. "Is the emerald there?" she asked.
"Yes," whispered Mekion. "It is white and submerged four feet deep." He stood up and moved away from the grate.
Omega looked in and took measurements. "Sensors detect plasma coolant runoff, charged with phosphorescent particles at 320 degrees Fahrenheit."
"Great," said Rouge. "How do we get the emerald now?"
Mekion looked up at the building. "What sort of place is this?"
"RedStar Energy Incorporated," said Rouge, reading a sign down the street. "We could wait for the coolant to stop draining, I suppose."
"Or turn it off long enough to retrieve the emerald," said Mekion. "Let's go inside."
Rouge smiled. A break-in--just what she liked best.
* * *
On the other side of the RedStar building, a red bobsled coasted to a stop, and Espio and Charmy slumped over the rear rails, panting. They had traded off pushing it down the highways, with hovercar drivers staring at them and jeering, "Hey, get a car!"
"Is this the place?" gasped Espio, who had been pushing last.
Vector checked his notepad. "733 Anabaro. This is the place. Some energy company."
"Now we need to find Rufus Lynxara," said Charmy, wiping his forehead under his goggles. "You think the bobsled will be okay out here?"
"Who'd steal this hunk of junk?" said Espio, kicking a rear tire as he walked by. "If they do, maybe we could get a real car."
"Oh hush," said Vector, climbing out of the driver's seat. "It's after nine--I hope the front office is still open."
"They might pitch us out on our ears," said Charmy. "What if Mr. Lynxara isn't there?"
"We'll try back tomorrow," said Vector. "Come on."
They climbed the brightly-lit front steps and entered the front doors, which were open. Inside was a wide reception area, deserted and silent. The three walked to the front desk and looked around. The walls were decorated with large photos of weird machinery producing glowing arcs of electricity, and behind the front desk was a wall-sized diagram of a plasma molecule.
"Hello?" said Vector. His voice echoed in the room.
"Why're they open if nobody's here?" asked Charmy. There was a service bell on the desk, so Espio reached over and rang it.
A door behind the desk opened, and a gray spotted lynx leaped into the room, brandishing a massive arm-cannon with a glowing red cannister mounted on his shoulder. "Who are you?" he snapped, covering them.
The Chaotix put their hands in the air, staring in shock. "Uh," said Vector, "we're looking for Rufus Lynxara--"
"Aha!" said the cat. "Come to steal my research, eh? Well, you can't have it! I'll melt the flesh from your bones!"
"Wait, no!" said Espio. "We're only here to pick up a package for someone!"
"Oh yeah? Who?" said Rufus, waving the barrel of the plasma rifle back and forth.
"We're the Chaotix Detectives," said Vector, trying to keep his cool. "We were told you'd been contacted about delivering some kind of package to us."
Rufus looked them up and down. "Let me see some ID."
Vector pulled out his wallet and tossed it to the cat, who looked through it suspiciously. Slowly he lowered his rifle. "All right," he said, tossing Vector's wallet back. "Lately the thugs from MG&E have been harassing me about my plasma energy research. But they won't get it!"
"Sorry to hear that," said Vector faintly.
Rufus beckoned with his rifle. "Come on, back here. But don't follow too close."
The Chaotix exchanged a nervous glance and followed him.
* * *
There were no outer doors or windows in the RedStar building, aside from the ones in front. Rouge inspected the whole structure and guessed the laboratory facility was underground. She returned to Mekion and Omega, who were standing in the deepest shadow, invisible but for their eyes.
"There's no way in," she told them. "Shadow, you'll have to Chaos Control."
"How did I know you were going to say that?" hissed Mekion through his teeth. "All right. Since this is a stealth mission, Omega should stay here."
Rouge nodded. "You heard him, Omega. If we're spotted, you're the distraction."
"Affirmative," said Omega, sounding pleased.
Rouge took Mekion's arm, and he held up the red emerald and focused on it. "Chaos relocate."
Their surroundings changed to a hallway, and as Mekion staggered and nearly shorted out, they saw a lynx striding toward them with a massive plasma rifle on his shoulder. He saw them appear and stopped dead, lifting his rifle. Thinking quickly, Mekion hissed, "Chaos control!" Time stopped.
To Rouge's horror, Mekion ran at the lynx with his teeth bared. "Shadow!" she cried. The black hedgehog kicked the lynx's feet out from under him and yanked the rifle out of his hands. Then Mekion turned and ran back toward Rouge. "Up the hall," he whispered. "Go! Go!"
She ran, hearing the whoosh of his hoverskates behind her. There were three doors at the end of the hall. As time started, Mekion grabbed her and teleported through one of them.
* * *
The Chaotix froze. There was a flash of light, and for an instant they saw Rouge and Shadow standing there, looking at them and Rufus in surprise. Then they disappeared, Rufus hit the floor, and his rifle vanished.
"Spies!" he cried, jumping to his feet. "Spies with teleporters! They're after my research!"
"Not spies," said Vector. "That was Rouge the bat and Shadow. They're thieves."
"Thieves!" howled Rufus, holding his head. "Rouge the bat! I'm having a seriously bad day!" He rushed down the hall to the doors, unlocked one and sprinted through it. The Chaotix looked at each other and followed.
* * *
Rouge and Mekion teleported into the middle of a dark stairwell, and nearly fell before they caught their balance. Then they clattered down the stairs, Rouge supporting Mekion, whose eye was flickering, but he had not shorted out. Perhaps his nanites were adapting to the power surges.
He recovered and led the way, pausing only to heave the plasma rifle over the railing, and they heard it crash to the floor below. As they reached the foot of the stairs, Mekion said, "Sensors detect large amounts of energy coming from that direction." He pointed down a hallway with walls covered in particle shielding.
Rouge didn't like the look of it, but she wanted that chaos emerald. "Lead the way."
As they entered the hall, they heard the door at the top of the stairs open, and the lynx roar, "If they're down here, I'll kill them!"
Mekion grabbed Rouge's arm and snarled, "Chaos control." The world froze, and the two ran on.
The shielded hall opened up into a circular room with three red pillars in the center. They were filled with glowing red semi-liquid that swirled and writhed up and down the glass. Plasma chambers. "Shadow, this isn't safe," said Rouge as heat struck her in the face and chest.
Mekion didn't respond. He was circling the room, scanning the pipes and equipment built into the walls. "Coolant," he whispered, stopping before three valve wheels. He grabbed them and spun them all shut.
Time started, and instantly alarms went off. A screen across the room blinked on with an overheat warning.
"Shadow, you idiot!" cried Rouge.
He tossed her a contemptuous look, snarled, "Chaos relocate!" and vanished in a sparkle of light.
He reappeared at the bottom of the pipe where they had seen the glowing water and chaos emerald. The pipe was draining with the coolant source cut off, but Mekion had lost track of real time while operating in a time freeze. The coolant had only been draining a few seconds when he teleported in, and thus he splashed down up to his neck in past-boiling water.
Half a second later he teleported back to the plasma chamber, hissing through his teeth, tears of pain pouring from his organic eye. He called another timestop and dropped to the floor, his spines and metal steaming even in the hot room. The pain was so incredible that he was incapable of coherent thought--both Shadow and Mekion were on sensory overload. He wanted to scream and cry, but lacked the voice to express the pain. Instead he beat his head and fists against the floor.
He thought the pain would subside, but it didn't. It went on and on, growing worse as his skin began to blister. The heck with this! Mekion was getting out of here! As the timestop ended, he rose, grabbed the frozen Rouge, and said, "Chaos relocate!"
* * *
Rufus and the Chaotix ran into the shielding plasma chamber just as Mekion and Rouge vanished. "They were trying to sabotage my work!" exclaimed Rufus, hearing the alarms and seeing the warning screen. He ran to the valve wheels and cranked them open, then sprinted around the room, turning this and closing that, channelling emergency coolant through the system.
As he worked, Espio nudged Vector and pointed to the floor. There was a puddle of water, and in the middle of it lay the white chaos emerald. Vector's mouth fell open. "Maybe it's Rufus's," he whispered.
The alarms shut off, and the screens displayed a chart of heat levels sinking back into the green. Rufus watched it and breathed a sigh of relief. "Foiled 'em that time!" he said, hands on his hips. He turned to the Chaotix and his eyes narrowed. "Hey. Were you guys a distraction to keep me occupied while the thieves teleported in?"
"No!" said Vector. "We're just here to pick up a package, not thieves."
Rufus gazed at them for a long moment, then shrugged. "Come on, then. This chamber is dangerous at the best of times." He walked out of the room without noticing the chaos emerald. Charmy whisked over, picked it up and tossed it to Vector, who put it into a pocket on his belt. Then they followed Rufus out of the shielded hall and into another room full of computers.
Rufus lifted a plastic box with clamps holding the lid shut. "Here it is," he said, looking at their faces.
Vector took the box, which weighed about fifteen pounds.
"What is it?" asked Charmy.
"Drylcorz acid," said Rufus. "There's eight pounds of the powder and a liter of the catalyst. Don't open it unless you have an expert handy. That acid will eat anything--cement, flesh, bones, you name it. I hope the guy who bought it knows what he's doing."
Vector looked at the box in horror. "Me too. Um, should I sign something?"
"Yes," said Rufus, pulling a paper off a pad on the desk. "That way when this chemical is dumped in the Metrocard water system, I know who to blame."
Five minutes later the Chaotix were out at the curb, loading the box onto the bobsled as gently as possible. "I don't like this at all," Vector kept muttering. "Until now we haven't handled anything inherently dangerous. But this stuff is deadly!"
"And so was the nut we got it from," said Charmy. "I've heard of paranoia, but that guy was scary!"
"You said it," said Espio. "Did Rouge and Shadow drop that chaos emerald?"
"Seems like it," said Vector. "Rufus didn't even notice it. I imagine Rouge and Shadow are pretty upset right about now."
"Well, let's get out of here," said Charmy. "I don't want them chasing after us when they hear what's happened."
"Righto," said Vector, moving to the back. "I'll push and Espio steers."
"About time!" said the chameleon, jumping in the front seat.
* * *
"You left the emerald!" Rouge was shrieking in a whisper. "You warp back in there and get it, now!"
Mekion was grasping his red gem in his hands, shaking and breathing through clenched teeth. "Rouge, no," he whispered. "I am in incredible pain and must seek repairs at once."
"First get me that emerald!"
"Not now. Later." Mekion gripped his emerald as if that could dull the pain. "I'll meet you in the park in the city's center tomorrow."
"Shadow!" Rouge grabbed his organic arm, but he snarled and pulled away from her. "Don't touch me. Goodbye." He vanished in a flash of light, leaving Rouge angry beyond reason. She looked at Omega. "Come with me. We're going after that emerald."
"Affirmative!" said the robot, his eyes lighting up several watts.
* * *
Mekion knew he couldn't break down in front of Rouge and Omega or he would lose face. But it was another matter when he was alone with his Master. Metal Sonic would excuse Mekion's behavior as reaction to pain, and as Mekion appeared on the bridge of the Egg Fleet's flagship, the Annihilator, Mekion's control over Shadow dropped to 80%, then 70%. Mekion had no programming to deal with pain, and Shadow did, thus Shadow rose to the surface as a self-defense mechanism.
Mekion nearly went offline, but experienced a brownout and slowly returned to full power. He was crouching on the floor of the control room, head bowed, breath coming in shallow gasps. He connected to the network, located Metal Sonic and said, "Master, please come to the Annihilator's control room. I am injured and request repairs."
"You are damaged again?" came Metal Sonic's outraged reply. "What have you been doing? Challenging the hedgehog again? I can't spend all my time repairing you!"
"No Master," said Mekion meekly. "I apologize. My pain tolerance was exceeded and I was not thinking clearly." He rose to his feet and limped out of the control room, looking for medical supplies.
After a moment Metal Sonic's voice came again, this time softer. "Your pain tolerance was exceeded?"
"Yes Master. Both Shadow's and Mekion's."
There was a long silence, and Mekion fought to stay coherent. Shadow's remedy for the pain was to fall asleep, a natural organic reaction. The touch of air was painful to his skin, and when one hair brushed another it was like being stabbed.
"Stay there, I am coming," said Metal Sonic. Mekion stopped, relieved. He didn't know his way around this ship, and he was in so much pain that the map readouts didn't make sense. After a few minutes he heard Metal Sonic approaching and turned his head.
Metal Sonic was in full battle armor, and a foot taller. Mekion had to look up to him, but he didn't mind. This was his Master.
Metal Sonic stopped in front of him and looked him over. "First-degree burn. I am not going to ask how you managed to burn your entire body equally. Come this way."
Mekion followed him in silence to a side room, where several robots were hooked into assembler chambers. Adjoining this room was a repair facility. A metal tube like an MRI was built into the wall. Metal Sonic motioned to it. "Climb in there and close your eyes." Mekion obeyed, wincing as the cold metal touched his body. It was dark inside, and for a moment he lay in the cool darkness, imagining the pain already lessening.
Then his body was sprayed with mist from jets along the sides of the tube, and Mekion shut his eyes. Over the network he asked, "What is this substance?"
"An organic burn medication," said Metal Sonic. "Nanites do not heal external burns very well. But there are remedies in nature that work almost as quickly, and this is one of them."
The treatment continued for half an hour, and Metal Sonic watched as Mekion's distress faded. With amusement, Metal Sonic observed that Mekion had actually fallen asleep. Like a small child, he responded to pain by escaping from it.
Metal Sonic looked at his reflection in a monitor, and flexed the biofibers in his face. The metal shifted like flesh, and he smiled. He had done so many upgrades to make himself organic that he had a real mouth, as well. Once Mekion was taken care of, Destro would regret making a fool of Metal Sonic ... he bared his teeth in a snarl at his reflection. It was satisfying to express himself. Due to his injuries, Mekion had not yet noticed.
The treatment ended, and Mekion slept on. Metal Sonic gave him another ten minutes, then walked to the tube and shook his patient. "Wake up, Mekion. The treatment is over."
Mekion blinked and lifted his head. "It is? I feel better." He slid out of the tube and sat on the edge, gingerly rubbing his fur with his robot hand. "Thank you, Master." He looked up just as Metal Sonic smiled, and jumped, eyes widening. "What--how--?"
"Biometal is a fascinating substance," said Metal Sonic. "I have emulated the facial muscles necessary for expression, as well as a synthetic larynx for speech. Notice how there is no trace of robotic origin about my voice."
Mekion rose to his feet, lifted his organic hand and touched Metal Sonic's face. Metal Sonic would have shredded anyone else who did such a thing, but with Mekion it was an act of reverence, so he permitted it.
Mekion lowered his hand and gazed at his Master in awe. "You are truly a genius."
"Thank you," said Metal Sonic, feeling pleased despite his sullen mood.
"And Master," said Mekion, hesitating. "Could you replace my damaged larynx with a synthetic one like yours? So I could speak above a whisper?"
Metal Sonic frowned, enjoying his ability to flatten his mouth and lower his eyebrows. "The organ is highly delicate and takes many hours to fabricate. In addition, it would be highly difficult to replace your own larynx. It might cause irreparable damage to your esophagus."
"Please, Master," said Mekion, looking desperate. "You don't understand the hardship of being shouted at and not being able to respond at a similar volume."
Metal Sonic smiled again. "When my plan is complete and I have the resources to spare, I will see to the operation."
"Thank you, Master." Mekion looked around in sudden panic. "My chaos emerald. Where is it?"
Metal Sonic scanned the ship. "You left it in the control room."
Mekion sprinted out of the room and Metal Sonic followed him. He came upon Mekion in the control room, holding the red gem and polishing it against his fur. "Without this I am powerless," said Mekion. "I don't set it down even to sleep."
Metal Sonic's eyes narrowed as he looked at the chaos emerald. Just as before, as soon as he set eyes on it he wanted it, wanted its power. And now, in his new biometal body, there was a possibility that he could touch the emerald without instant shutdown resulting. "Mekion," he said, "let me see your emerald for a moment."
Mekion looked at him, but it was a command, and he could not disobey. Slowly he held out the emerald, and just as slowly, Metal Sonic reached out and took it.
Metal Sonic found himself holding a chaos emerald without pain for the first time in his memory. He turned it over and over, feeling the sharpness of its corners and the smoothness of its facets. But he could not feel the power inside it. There was still too much robot in him, and not enough organic. He handed it back to Mekion. "Return to your business. I must attend to my work."
"Yes Master." Mekion teleported away, and Metal Sonic flinched at the rush of chaos energy.
Blast it. Even after all his upgrades, he was only a chaos neutral.
* * *
Rouge slipped through the main doors and scoped out the entrance. Deserted. She could hear the throb of machinery back in the lab, but no sound from a living person. She beckoned to Omega, and he stepped inside, treading softly to avoid clanking. His shield was on full, and Rouge felt her fur crackle with electricity when she moved too close. If they met that crazy scientist, they would have a fight on their hands, and a fight in a plasma lab could be dangerous.
Rouge looked through a side door, recognized the hallway and darted inside, Omega following. She wanted that chaos emerald so badly she was willing to kill for it. The white emerald held special significance for her because she had bluffed her way onto the ARK by faking it. The real article had intrigued her ever since.
The hallway was empty. Rouge hurried down it, Omega's footsteps grating on her ears. She reached the three doors at the end and tried the one on the right, which she remembered teleporting through. Locked, of course. She pulled a lockpick from her belt and set to work. Omega moved up behind her and waited, ominous and silent.
The lock clicked and the door opened. Rouge returned her lockpick to her belt and peered around the door. There was the stairway leading down to the lab. She listened. Her sensitive ears detected movement down below; footsteps, keys clicking. She descended the stairs one foot at a time, listening for any change in the sounds of motion. Behind her, Omega began descending the stairs sideways, placing each foot carefully.
Presently the lab came into view, and Rouge knelt and looked in. She could see the lynx stooping over a computer console, reading a screen with a pen in one hand. As she watched, he glanced over his shoulders as if he felt her gaze. She kept perfectly still, and he returned his attention to his computer.
Above her Omega's foot slipped, and he caught himself on the railing with a clang.
Rufus whirled around and saw her. "Aha!" he yelled. "I knew you'd come after me! It was a bad idea coming into the lab itself, very bad idea indeed."
Rouge drew a pistol from her belt and pointed it at him. "I'm here for the chaos emerald."
Rufus picked up a small plastic stick from the desk. "What's a chaos emerald?"
"Don't play stupid," said Rouge, descending the stairs the rest of the way. Omega remained in the stairwell, but crept low enough to see into the lab.
"I left the white emerald here, and I want it back."
Rufus grinned, and Rouge's resolution wavered. Nobody grinned when you had a gun pointed at them, unless they knew something you didn't.
"There's no chaos emerald here," he said. "Although they sound fascinating. I'm sure you're really after my plasma data, aren't you?"
"Hand over the emerald and nobody gets hurt," said Rouge. "And drop that thing you're holding."
"What, this?" said Rufus, holding up the plastic stick. "You don't want me to drop this." He was still grinning.
"Put it down," said Rouge. "Slowly."
"Why don't I give it to you?" said Rufus, pulling off the end. "Here, catch!" He threw it and dove to the floor.
Rouge automatically put up a hand to catch the stick, and subconsciously realized what she was doing. She cringed aside instead, and the stick hit the floor and exploded in a flash of light. Rouge screamed as pain exploded inside her head as her optic nerves overloaded, and she heard Omega's chaingun rattle.
There was a deafening screech of a plasma rifle firing, and Rouge felt intense heat brush her face. She dropped flat, temporarily blinded, and listened as Rufus and Omega exchanged fire. She heard things explode and sparks fell on her, and she realized she had to reach safety. She began crawling toward where she remembered the stairs were, her head throbbing. She had challenged the wrong lunatic.
"Omega! Omega, help me!" A burst of plasma passed close to one wing, and she clamped them tighter to her sides. She felt one of the steps in front of her and began climbing. Omega was up there somewhere--she could hear him laughing as he fired. "Omega!" she yelled. "Retreat!"
She felt his hand close on the back of her shirt and lift her in the air. Then he was clattering up the stairs grumbling to himself. His other hand closed around her middle, and she felt the crackle of his shield against her legs. Behind her she heard Rufus yell, "Ha, that'll teach you thieves to break in here! Go on, run! Run before I put a hole in your back!"
Rouge smelled fresh air and heard the open-air ambience of outdoors. Omega ran for a while longer, his feet clanking on pavement. Then his feet fell muffled on grass, and he stopped, setting Rouge down. "Where are we?" she asked, lifting her head. All she could see were the after-images of the flash burned into her retinas.
"This is the park where Mekion is to meet us," said Omega. "It is a pity you were stupid enough to let him throw the flash grenade."
"Sorry, gee," said Rouge sarcastically. "I didn't know it was a flash grenade."
"He put up a good fight, too," said Omega. "I would have enjoyed finishing him off. I might have perhaps taken damage." He sounded delighted at the thought.
"Why would you want to take damage?" asked Rouge, massaging her eyes with her fingers.
"When I am damaged to one hundred percent, my pilot will be ejected," said Omega. "The pilot is me. Therefore my only hope of escape is to destroy myself in battle."
"Oh." Rouge thought about this. "Can you be taken out apart from being destroyed?"
"Perhaps," said Omega. "I was inserted somehow. I supposed I could be extracted the same way."
"When I get my sight back, I'll see if I can open you up," said Rouge. "Is there anyone around here?"
Omega's instruments hummed. "No one. I will keep watch. Keep your eyes covered so they will recover faster."
Rouge threw an arm over her eyes. "All right. Wake me up if anyone comes along."
* * *
The Chaotix returned to the office at dawn.
Charmy and Espio went to their apartments across the street to get some sleep, but Vector was too upset to rest. The thought of picking up a deadly chemical agent for an unknown client ate at him. Should he report it? What if the Client was some kind of terrorist? What was all this for, anyway?
He carried the sealed box into the office, put it in a storage closet with the other parts and locked the door. Then he pulled out the communicator and snarled, "Hey! This is Vector."
It took a moment for the Client to respond, and he sounded sleepy through the synthesizer. "Oh, Vector, hello. A bit early, isn't it?"
"We just got back from Metrocard," growled Vector. "We picked up a strong chemical used in biological warfare."
"Oh really," said the Client. "Glad to hear that. Let's see, the next item on the agenda is--"
"I'm not getting any more items!" Vector roared. "Not until you explain what that chemical is for! I will not help start the second Great War!"
"Calm down," said the Client. "No one is starting a war." He hesitated, then said, "I am working against Dr. Robotnik. You are constructing a type of weapon that will counteract his secret weapon."
"Sure," said Vector, scowling at the communicator. "What if I'm BUILDING his secret weapon, huh? And you pin the crime on us?"
"Ten pounds of chemical is hardly enough to harm a country," said the Client quietly. "Was the catalyst included?"
"Good. Lynxara must have neglected to mention that the chemical is harmless until mixed with the catalyst. It goes without saying that I don't want you to do that."
Vector felt his blood pressure drop. "Harmless?"
"Harmless," repeated the Client. "Are you ready for your next set of instructions?"
Vector realized he had been up all night, and dropped into the desk chair with a stifled groan. He pulled a notepad toward him and uncapped a pen. "Yep. Go ahead."
* * *
Sonic passed a restless night plagued with half-remembered dreams, tossing and turning, wishing for his hammock in Knothole. When he did fall asleep, he dreamed about Mekion throttling him, and Rouge's smile, and of Sally following a road that he could not, and leaving him forever. Sonic's anguish over the day's events had been shoved into his subconscious to avoid thinking about them, but now it all boiled to the surface to torment him.
He was glad to look at the clock and see that it was 5 AM at last. He got up, put on his shoes, and went for a solitary run along the beach. It was deserted, and the sun was rising over the city behind him. A cool breeze blew off the mainland and Sonic inhaled it as he ran, leaving a fading trail of sneakerprints along the waterline. It felt good to run. It drove away the night's ghosts and cleared his head. Mekion hadn't killed him, after all, and Sally was still here. He still had a chance to win Sally and beat Mekion, along with whatever Mekion was scheming.
Today, Sonic, Tails and Knuckles planned to track the train's cargo in Metrocard and see if they could spot Robotnik. It would be exciting to visit Metrocard anyway, because it was a big Mobian city. Sonic liked Mobian cities more than human cities, simply because he was Mobian and understood his people's ways.
He turned around and ran back down the beach toward the UA building's street. The sun was just touching the crests of the breakers, and Sonic was hungry. Sally would be up by now, and Tails would probably join them for breakfast. Sonic wondered if Sally would accompany them to Metrocard, and shook his head. She was too busy with her political work to bother with his small doings. She'd stay behind, as usual.
Sonic slowed as he entered the Rio Del Fuego streets again. There were a few cars and pedestrians moving about, and the dull roar of the awakening city. He entered the pyramid, displayed his pass to the guard, and went to the hotel restaurant. Sally and Tails were seated at a table, and looked up as he entered.
"I thought you were still in bed!" said Sally as he sat down. "Where were you?"
"Running, where else?" said Sonic. "So, are we going to Metrocard today?"
"Yeah!" said Tails.
To their surprise, Sally said, "Of course!"
Sonic and Tails looked at her. "You're coming?" asked Tails. "I thought you couldn't leave the conference."
"I give the opening speech at eight," said Sally. "After that, I'm free for the whole day. Today the lectures are rehashes of the last two days, and I can afford to miss them. I need a change of scenery, anyway."
Tails saw Sonic's face light up like a lantern. "All right Sal!"
A waiter appeared, and they ordered their breakfasts. As they waited for the food to arrive, Tails said, "Will we take the Cyclone today?"
Sonic looked at Sally. "Want to? It has that car-mode. You could ride with Tails and I'll run."
"Sure," she said, "but what about Knuckles? Isn't he coming?"
"He can ride on the tail," said Tails. "We won't be driving very fast, so it'll be okay."
"Great," said Sonic. "I can already tell today will be loads of fun."
Their food arrived, and they were halfway through breakfast when Knuckles walked in and pulled up a chair. He looked more relaxed than he had the previous day--he was here on his own initiative, and tracking a train was less stressful than rescuing Sonic. "So what's the plan?" he asked.
Sonic told him about taking the Cyclone and finding the station where the train unloaded. Tails listened, finding it funny that Sonic was giving orders and Sally was listening. Usually it was the other way around. Tails also saw that Sally watched Sonic as if he was a popular TV comedian she was dining with. She enjoyed everything about him. Tails had never noticed that before. He had it on good authority that Sonic was losing momentum in his courtship, thinking that his efforts were in vain. If that look on Sally's face was any indication, Sonic's work had not gone unnoticed.
After breakfast Sally left to give the opening lecture, and Sonic, Tails and Knuckles went outside. Sonic had remembered Amy, Cream and Big, and wanted to make sure they were all right. Their hotel was around the corner from the UA building, and they found Cream and Amy out front, watching as Big fished for goldfish in a fountain.
Big was so focused that he didn't notice when Sonic, Tails and Knuckles walked up, but Cream and Amy looked up and waved. "Shh!" said Amy, putting a finger to her lips. "Big says there's a ten pound koi in there that he's trying to catch."
"Cool," whispered Sonic. "We're going to Metrocard today. You guys need to hang around here so the police can find you if they reach Cream's mom."
"Hang around here?" said Cream. "But there's nothing to do!"
"Could we go to Ocean Palace?" asked Amy, pleading. "It's supposed to hit a hundred today, and they have a waterpark."
Sonic looked at Tails and shrugged. "I guess if you leave a message at the front desk, so they could find you."
Amy smiled, and Cream clapped her hands. "Goody! We get to go on the waterslides! Hear that, Mr. Big?"
Big's ear twitched, but he didn't reply.
"He's thrilled, I'm sure," said Sonic, smirking. "We'll check on you again this evening. Look out for each other, okay?" He looked at Amy and nodded toward Cream.
Amy understood. "Right, Sonic."
Cream was bouncing from foot to foot, chanting, "Waterslides! Waterslides! Waterslides!" Then she saw Tails and fell silent, staring at him with round eyes. Tails felt himself blush under his fur, and studied the ground.
"Okay," said Sonic, intervening. "We're off to pick up the Cyclone. Be good, you guys."
"We will!" chorused Amy and Cream, as the three older Mobians walked off down the street.
As soon as they were out of earshot, Knuckles elbowed Tails. "Looks like you've got a girlfriend."
"She's not either," said Tails, ducking his head. "She has a crush on me or something."
"A bad one," grinned Knuckles. "What'd you do, save her from Shadow?"
"I didn't do anything!" said Tails. "She saw me and went all funny like that. I'd never laid eyes on her before that."
"Yep, get used to it," said Sonic from Tails's other side. "A fan for me, a fan for you. You've hit the age where girls start noticing you."
"I wish they didn't," said Tails, secretly thrilled.
"Yeah," said Knuckles. "You'd know all about that, wouldn't you, Sonic?"
"Yep!" said Sonic. "All the chicks dig me. Except one."
"Who?" said Knuckles.
Tails and Sonic looked to see if he was kidding. "You know who," said Tails.
Knuckles looked blank. "I don't, really. Who're you after, Sonic?"
"The same girl I've always been after," said Sonic. "I didn't realize you were so dense, Knucklehead."
"I've been too busy chasing my own girl to worry about yours," said Knuckles. "And I caught mine." He held up one hand, displaying the ring on his finger.
"Yeah, the hard part's over for you," said Sonic. "Lucky dog."
"I wish," said Knuckles with a wry grin. "Being married is like waking up one morning and your life's been turned inside out."
"You caught her, though," said Sonic. "I can't catch Sally and I doubt I ever will."
"Have you proposed to her yet?"
"Well ... no."
Knuckles grinned. "That's your problem. I proposed to Zephyer three or four times before she accepted me. And you haven't done it once!"
Sonic became interested in a seagull flying over.
Tails grinned. "You're forgetting something, Knuckles. You only proposed to Zephyer the first time because you thought you'd both die in the next ten minutes."
"Sue me," said Knuckles. "And Sonic, I recommend waiting until you're really ready, so she won't have to turn you down."
Sonic snorted. "What are you guys, the romance gurus? I'm outta here." He flashed off up the street in the direction of the airport, and Tails and Knuckles laughed.
* * *
Espio unlocked the Chaotix's office door, glanced around at the usual untidiness, then tried the storage closet door. Locked. Vector must have put the chemical in there for safekeeping.
Espio turned on the computer and checked the answering machine, then glanced at the notepad on the desk. Vector must have been in contact with the Client, because another set of directions had been written down in Vector's generous scrawl. Espio squinted at the pad. They were directions to an address in Rio Del Fuego. "Why couldn't he have given us that one first?" the chameleon muttered, pulling out a phonebook.
He looked up the address and discovered it was a second-hand electronics store. It struck him as odd-everything else had come straight from a manufacturer. And now a part from a seedy repair place?
Espio made coffee and manned the office until eight, when Charmy wandered in, his antennae crooked, rubbing his eyes. "I hate all-nighters," said the bee, pouring himself a cup of coffee. He added four packages of sweeteners and sipped the resulting sludge.
"Want a little coffee with your sugar?" said Espio, smirking.
"I'm all out of nectar," said Charmy. "This will tide me over until Novadeer opens."
"Wish I could live like that," said Espio. "Check it out. Vector got more instructions from the Client."
Charmy took the notepad and read it. "Hey, that's like two blocks from here!"
"I looked it up," said Espio. "It's Hardy Harvey's Electric Powerhouse."
"No way!" said Charmy. "Hardy Harvey's? But he sells trash!"
"My thoughts exactly," said Espio. "You think Vector would mind if I ran down there now and picked up the part?"
"Shoot, Vector will sleep until noon," said Charmy. "Might as well go now. I'll watch the office until you get back."
"Right." Espio tore off the page of instructions and darted out the door.
The only member of the Chaotix who visited Hardy Harvey's was Mighty, who loved electronics and cameras. Espio had gone in a few times, but was so disgusted by the run-down condition of the merchandise that he didn't go back. Now, as he trotted down the street, blending with every surface he passed, he wondered what Harvey might have in his plunder that the Client would want.
Espio pushed open the front door of the shop, and an obnoxious buzzer announced his presence. The dark, dingy shop was crammed with loaded shelves. As he walked to the back, Espio reflected that this was where bad appliances went when they died. Everywhere was a tangle of glass, cords, plastic and dust.
Harvey himself was behind the counter, a shifty-eyed raccoon who had to have something in his hands at all times. Today it was a remote control with the back taken off, and he was tweaking the insides. He looked up as Espio walked in. "Hey Espio! Ain't seen you in a month of Sundays!"
"Been busy with work," said Espio. "I'm here on business. I need to pick up a part for a client of mine."
"Oh, the high-paying client?" said Harvey. "If I got orders like that every day, I'd be rolling in dough. Just a minute." He vanished into the back, leaving the remote control on the counter.
Espio picked it up. Inside was a row of tiny switches that Harvey was reconfiguring. Espio pressed the power button, and two televisions across the room flicked on. Espio turned them off, replaced the remote, and was examining a broken microwave when Harvey returned. He was carrying a square object wrapped in plastic.
"Here you go, Espio. Had this in storage for years, never thought I'd find a buyer."
"What is it?"
"One of those old nuclear batteries they used in the D39 hovercars. It's non-standard, and you can't give 'em away. But your client was sure eager to get it. I quoted him a stiff price."
"It's not damaged, is it?" said Espio, looking suspiciously at the plastic. "I won't die of some weird radiation disease from carrying it?"
"It's safe," said Harvey, waving a hand. "It's in good condition. It's just old."
"Right," said Espio. "So if I drop it, there goes half the block."
"Don't drop it," said Harvey.
Espio carried the battery back to the office as if he was carrying a time bomb, which, in a way, he was. He stowed it in the closet with the other parts and locked the door. "So what was it?" asked Charmy.
"An old nuclear battery," said Espio. "First a chemical, now this. I'm beginning to fear our Client."
* * *
At dawn Rouge awoke to find her eyesight returning. When she opened her eyes, she saw the sky as a bluish blur, with darker patches against it where trees were. She sat up, putting her hands out to find out what was around her, and touched something warm. She jerked her hand away and saw a dark blur move to her right. "Mekion?"
"Yes," he hissed. "I'd thank you not to scare me like that again."
"Sorry." She wondered if he had been arguing with Shadow. "Maybe next time you should be more alert."
"I was conversing with Omega."
Omega said, "Rouge, how is your eyesight?"
"Blurry," said Rouge. "But I can see, and that's something. I'll have to ride on your shoulder until I recover, Omega."
"Yes," he said. "Mekion says that Dr. Robotnik has ordered an attack on Metrocard. Robots are assembling in hiding everywhere. I must destroy them."
Rouge looked toward Mekion, and thought she could see the red glow from his eye. "How did you learn that?"
"Purely by chance," he whispered. "I returned here at 2 AM, and to amuse myself I scanned frequencies. Among them I discovered one of Dr. Robotnik's codes. It was activation instructions to a legion of robots hidden here in this city."
"Oh great." Rouge had an image of herself riding on Omega's shoulder during a firefight. "Shouldn't we tell someone?"
"Who would listen to us?" whispered Mekion.
"You are a thief, I am a fused-mecha, and Omega is one of Robotnik's robots."
"What about Sonic?"
Mekion snorted. "After what we did to him, why should he believe us any more than the authorities?"
"But we can't fight a legion," said Rouge. "That's ten thousand troops."
"I suggest we teleport to safety," said Mekion. "Only Omega wishes to fight. What do you suggest?"
Rouge thought about it. In the long run only her own skin mattered, even if Metrocard didn't survive a sneak-attack from within. "Let's get out of here."
"Leave me here," said Omega. "I wish to fight to the death. Destroying this body in battle will be a glorious end for it."
Before Rouge could answer, Mekion said, "Done. Chaos relocate."
They appeared in Rouge's apartment in Rio Del Fuego. Rouge recognized it by the smell, and groped to the couch. "Thank you, Shadow."
"Omega desires death above all else," said Mekion, moving to the window. "Although I despise him, I find him fascinating."
Rouge pulled a pillow over her eyes. "We can't leave him there to die; you have to go get him."
"Why?" said Mekion. "It's what he wants. We discussed it while you were sleeping."
"Yes, he explained it to me," said Rouge. "The flicky inside of him wants out. If we could take apart the robot hull, we could take it out without damaging the robot itself."
Mekion said nothing. After a while Rouge asked, "How are your burns?"
"Better," whispered Mekion. "My Master was kind to me. I understand you did not locate the white emerald."
"No," said Rouge. "But I'm sure it's still in the lab somewhere."
"Undoubtedly," said Mekion. "However, there are other emeralds that would be easier to locate."
"Oh? You saw some?"
"Yes. Sonic has an emerald."
"Oh." Rouge's mind clicked into high gear. Sonic's emerald had come from the Amile canyon and made him Shadow's equal. Robbing him would remove his teleportation ability. It might also lure Sonic to Metrocard, where he could take steps to stop the invasion. "Yes," she said, beginning to smile. "Do you want to rob Sonic?"
"It would give me pleasure."
"Do you know where he is?"
Rouge pointed toward her room. "Go in there and bring me the box on the dresser."
Mekion obeyed, and she sat up, trying to focus her eyes. All she could see when he brought the box was a dark shape. She fumbled over it, undid the catches and opened it. Then she ran her fingers over the parts inside.
"Here," she said, picking up a small piece of plastic. "This is an earpiece radio. This way I can stay in contact with you. I'll wear the other earpiece, and here are the voice pieces." She located two watches by touch and handed one to him. She heard him put it on without comment. "Can you figure it out?"
"Yes," he whispered. "I will notify you when I have Sonic's emerald." And he teleported in a whoosh of air.
Rouge covered her eyes again, and fell asleep on the couch.
* * *
It was a warm summer morning in Knothole, several time zones apart from Carrotseed, and hundreds of miles north of Rio Del Fuego. Half the village was busy making breakfast, it seemed, and the other half was either beginning their work or playing and swimming.
The sky was clear and the weather was great, unless you were an arctic peregrine falcon. Tachyon stood perched on a bench inside the community hut, trying to concentrate on the chessboard and wishing they had air conditioning. All the doors and windows were open, a strong breeze from outdoors was ruffling his feathers, and he was still sweating profusely. He'd even detached his watch from its wing clip.
His opponent was his chao, Perry, a royal blue swimming chao with an orange-colored underbelly. Careful not to mar the wooden table with his long talons, Perry walked back and forth across it, surveying the board. After a minute's deliberation, he picked up a piece in both adhesive flippers, and set it down four spaces away. "Check."
Tachyon sighed. "You've been taking lessons, haven't you."
He nodded. "Pip's been teaching me on the Internet."
Then the phone rang. Tachyon hopped down from his perch and hurried over to the stack of electronics near the window, claws clicking on the floor. Prehensile wingtips deftly fluttered and curled about the receiver, and brought it to his beak. "Hello?"
Static. He reached up and adjusted the satellite dish near the window. "I'm sorry, could you repeat that?"
"This is Destro," a flat voice told him. "Let me talk to Sonic."
Perry had come close, so that he could hear. He gave Tachyon a questioning look.
"Um ... he's not in right now," the falcon replied. "Can I take a message?"
"Is he anywhere near a town called Carrotseed, in Central Mobius?"
"No," came the high-pitched male voice on the other end. "He went with the princess to the Overlander colonies for the peace conference."
The waitress' tall rabbit ears perked, even though she was on the other side of the dining room from him.
"Let me talk to someone in charge."
"I'm afraid we can't ... er, hold on a second."
Tachyon held Perry up, who was holding the phone for Slasher. The winged raptor knelt down next to them so they could reach her. "Hello?"
"Who is this?"
"A friend of Sonic's," she said. "Who are you?"
"The same. Are you in charge?"
"As long as the princess is gone, I am. Why?"
Destro explained what had happened, in as few words as possible. She missed the first second of his explanation, because the Mobian-sized telephone was so small to her that Perry had to move it from her jaws to her earhole, every time she stopped speaking.
Tachyon's wings quivered, and a few beads of sweat traced down his sides as he tried not to let go.
"Now, you know he can't have attacked you," Slasher said. "He's not even there."
"I know. What did?"
She looked down at Tachyon, but he had his eyes shut. Perry just shrugged.
"We'll get back to you," Slasher told him. "What's your phone number?"
He found out, and gave it to her before hanging up. Slasher picked up the phone in her teeth and carefuly hung it up, shifting it around with her foreclaws, while Perry jumped down to find something to write on and Tachyon just panted, wings drooping.
He was still tired when Slasher began pacing the room. "So ... " He looked up. "Who and what was that?"
"I have no clue."
"Nope," Slasher said. "He said he's a friend of Sonic's, though." They rarely spoke, now that the hedgehog had grown up.
Tachyon bobbed his head in a nod. He looked over at Perry, who was swimming around in a tall, metal washbasin in the shade. "Any idea what attacked him?"
"No. And that," Slasher remarked, "is what worries me."
They got out a few encyclopedias and rolled-up maps from the bookshelves, and set the chess game aside to pore over them. Perry climbed up to the table and waddled in close, almost getting the paper wet.
"He said he thinks he sword went right through him. Biometal, maybe?"
"Um, maybe." Tachyon held out his wing to keep Perry back.
Slasher looked the maps over, but there weren't any large cities or industrial centers near Carrotseed. There was a military base of some kind, though ... the New Coronado Proving Grounds, controlled by the humans. It was only five miles away.
"Perhaps it was an illusion," Tachyon offered.
"Illusions can't grab you like that."
"I've known a few that could ... "
The raptor sideyed him, but he just twiddled his wingtips.
"Well, there's no way to track a kitsune anyhow," she said. "Not unless I'm out there in person."
She thought for a moment, crouched down next to the table. Then she got up. "Tachyon, call him back and let him know I'll be there by tomorrow. Call Sonic too, see if he knows anything ... about this, I mean. Then run an Internet search, on the New Coronado Proving Grounds." She pointed them out, on the map. "I'll call later to see what you found." Slasher went over to the electronics as she talked, and picked out a headset radio that had been specially fitted to her.
"Um, okay." He started to roll up the map. "Who's going to be in charge while you're gone, then?"
"You, unless you've got any better ideas." She turned her head to the side so she could adjust the headset with her foreclaws.
"Me?" Tachyon's voice squeaked. He cleared his throat. "What am I supposed to do if something goes wrong?"
"Lock the door," she said, on her way out. "And hope they don't have blasters."
She took off just outside, golden wings beating hard against the wind. Tachyon hurried over and watched her leave.
Perry stood next to him. He looked up. "Can we get back to chess now?"
Slasher flew into Riverbase, and soon had a jet chartered to fly her to a city in Central Mobius. The Freedom Fighters had always had a good working relationship with the Riverbase government, and even though it was on very short notice she found them easy to persuade.
Not so in Central Mobius. The people there eyed her suspiciously and kept their distance, as they had no idea who this huge dinosaur was. After a few minutes of speaking with the clerks inside the terminal, she noticed airport security was carrying grenade launchers and long rifles, and there were a lot more of them around than usual.
Her instincts told her she was being surrounded, and that she had to escape. Tired from her long plane ride, she had to struggle to control herself.
"Ma'am ... " She glanced upwards at the Trans-Mobius Airlines logo, and forced herself not to look to the side. "I already understand my 'country' doesn't have an embassy here."
Slasher looked back down at the vulpine desk clerk. "But I need a ride to Carrotseed, right now. What do I have to do in order to get one?"
The fox had a white-knuckled grip on the edge of the counter. "Our r-rates are posted on the screen. How many seats will you n-need?"
An inward groan. She hadn't thought to bring any money. "None right now, thanks anyway."
She walked away from the counter, slowly and deliberately, not sure where to go next. It was dark outside, through the overhead windows, and what few people were in the airport kept their distance from her.
A confused-sounding voice came over the speakers. "Miss ... Slasher, you have a phone call at the courtesy desk. Miss Slasher, you have a phone call at the courtesy desk," it repeated.
Her radio headset could autopatch into the phone network, but it couldn't take incoming calls. Relieved, she hurried towards the desk, and people jumped to the sides even though they weren't in her way.
"Yes?" She sounded breathless.
Tachyon checked his notes. "It took me awhile, but I was able to get Sally on the phone," he said.
"Sally? Not Sonic?"
"He was kind of ... busy, at the moment."
"Did she say with what?"
"No." He fidgeted. Perry shuffled through the notes on the floor beside them.
"Okay ... what DID she say, then?"
"She said she doesn't know what's pretending to be Sonic. She also hasn't seen anything that looks to be biometal."
Slasher gave a snort of disgust.
"It's still a good guess, though," he offered. "And she did say she and Sonic flew over those proving grounds of yours."
"Great! What'd they see?"
"An airfield. With a fleet of high-tech aircraft parked at it. Tons of them."
"Did you look the place up on the 'net?"
"Yes." He nodded. "It did belong to the colonies, but during the biotic war they sold it to a private developer."
"Any idea who?"
"No. It didn't say. There weren't a whole lot of articles about it, for that matter."
Slasher sighed. "Anything else?"
"Nope. Oh ... "
She waited a few seconds, for him to remember what he was going to say.
"Sally thought you could probably use some money, so she borrowed a thousand Mobiads and had them wired to a bank near you."
"Really? Which one?"
Perry held up the sheet of paper in his other flipper, and read it off near the phone. "Citizens' Bank, Grand Airport West."
"I'm there! Thanks for remembering to mention that, Tachyon."
She was being sarcastic. He winced. "Sorry ... "
Slasher nodded to the armadillo behind the counter, who put away the speakerphone and pressed the button to hang it up. After consulting a directory just across from them, she made for the shuttle to the west wing of the airport.
That armadillo hadn't seemed too impressed with her. As she left, Slasher heard her mention "that big ol' dragon" to someone else. She winced, and hurried to get out of earshot.
Behind her, a roof-mounted plasma TV was tuned to a cable news channel. The ticker at the bottom read "DOWNED AIRCRAFT IN CENTRAL MOBIUS -- INVESTIGATION STALLED."
* * *
Sonic, Tails and Knuckles dug the Cyclone out of its hanger spot in the Rio Del Fuego airport, and Tails transformed it to a car. Tails and Knuckles climbed aboard, and Sonic was amused to see that Knuckles was too big to fit into the back seat.
"Dang it Tails," growled the echidna. "I thought you expanded this thing."
"It's wider in plane mode," said Tails apologetically.
"Maybe you should lose some weight, Knux," said Sonic, grinning.
"Right," said Knuckles. "And maybe you should lose some sarcasm."
Knuckles wound up sitting crosswise across the seat with his feet over one side and his elbows over the other. Tails pulled out of the hangar and drove back to the hotel, Sonic running alongside. None of them saw the black figure that ran from rooftop to rooftop, watching them.
"I'll see if Sally's done," said Sonic, darting into the UA building. He found the lobby was full of people on recess, and spent a few minutes looking at the clusters of people, trying to spot sally. When he didn't see her, he dashed upstairs to check her room. As he entered the hallway he saw her just leaving her room, dressed in her regular vest and boots. It was a relief to see her in normal clothes again--she had been in formal clothes since they got here.
"Hi Sonic!" she said, spotting him. "Back already? How were Amy and Cream?"
"They're all fine," said Sonic. "Hang on, I need my emerald." He entered his own room, and Sally followed him.
"Tachyon paged me from Knothole. Supposedly you've been spotted in Central Mobius."
Sonic laughed. "Central Mobius? Yeah right! I'm fast, but I'm not that fast."
Sally shook her head. "Slasher's gone to investigate. I hope it's not something serious ... remember the last time someone was mistaken for you? You wound up in jail."
"Yeah, but this guy's in Central Mobius," said Sonic with a shrug, walking to his bureau. "He shouldn't bother me. Oh yeah ... I have two emeralds now..." He opened a drawer and pulled out the green and violet emeralds.
"You found one yesterday, right?" said Sally.
"Yeah," said Sonic. "I can't use the purple one very well. It changes too much all the time. But... I don't want to leave it here..."
"We can put it in the hotel safe," said Sally. "Toss it here."
Sonic tossed her the purple gem, and Sally caught it.
As soon as she touched it she understood it. It wasn't so much feeling the chaos power inside it--it was as if her being resonated with the violet emerald, as if she were a tuning fork and it was another. She stared at it, perfectly still, marveling. She was afraid to move for fear she might set off one of its powers indoors.
Sonic noticed her. "Sal?" You okay?" When she didn't answer but continued to stare at the gem, Sonic went white. He jumped at her and snatched the emerald from her hands. "Sal! Don't look! Chaos Sight isn't real, okay? Only a fraction of that stuff comes true!"
Sally blinked at him. "What?"
Sonic looked from her to the violet emerald and back. "Weren't you Chaos Seeing?"
"No," said Sally. "I just--I've never handled a chaos emerald like that before. It responded to me."
Sonic stared at her, then slowly handed the emerald back to her. Sally cupped it in her hands and gazed into it.
"Sal," said Sonic quietly. "Can you use the chaos emeralds?"
"I've never tried," said Sally. "I've handled them a little, but they never... never clicked like this."
"Well then, keep it," said Sonic. "I can only use one at time for teleporting and stuff, and nobody will think to frisk you for an emerald."
With an effort Sally put the emerald into her vest pocket, and followed Sonic out into the hall. Her mind was reeling. How was this possible? She had been a chaos neutral--that is, a Mobian without a chaos field--since she was born. The chaos emeralds had no effect on her. Her thoughts flew to her encounter with Robo Knux that spring. He had forced chaos energy into her in an attempt to kill her, and she remembered the crushing sensation as if the air pressure was increasing. Being neutral to chaos had saved her then. Had such large amounts of chaos changed something inside her to chaos positive? There was no way to tell without instruments.
Sonic guided her through the crowd of politicians, trying to ignore the stares and dirty looks he attracted. He didn't like this kind of attention. They knew he was Sally's boyfriend, and that he was about as opposite a politician as one could get. And they hated him for trying to win her from them, despite the numerous times Sonic had saved civilization from being wiped out. To them he was a rebel whose usefulness had ended. He knew they thought such things, and they knew he knew. Wading through the crowd was like running the gauntlet. Then Sally moved up beside him and met the looks coming their way, and the others looked away. If she wanted to cut her career's throat, that was her business.
They made it out to the curb unscathed, but Sonic was muttering about the snobs running the country under his breath.
"There you are!" Tails called. "What took so long?"
"Needed my emerald," said Sonic, holding up the green gem. "Move your bo-hunkus, Knux."
Knuckles rose from the back seat, and sat on the tailfin as Sally climbed in. She fit in the seat without trouble, and Sonic made silent jeering faces at Knuckles as she buckled herself in.
"Alright, hang on!" said Tails, pulling away from the curb. "Lead the way, Sonic!"
Sonic ran down the street, and Tails followed in the Cyclone. Above them, Mekion broke into a run, jumping from building to building and teleporting over what he couldn't jump. He had seen Sonic hold up the green chaos emerald, and felt a rush of excitement. The ruling green! Sonic had found the ruling green! Shadow's memory by this time was a blank, but in Mekion's databanks were stored snapshots and glimpses of the things Shadow had been trained to do with the green emerald. It was his personal favorite, the one he knew inside and out. He had to get it away from Sonic.
He considered teleporting down and grabbing it out of Sonic's hand, but Sonic would put up a fight and probably teleport, so that was no good. Mekion's best chance was to surprise Sonic when Sonic was busy with other things. Fighting robots, maybe. Maybe a green emerald chaos relocate wouldn't harm Mekion so much. Mekion had a brownout with each teleport, but he no longer completely shorted out. Perhaps he was growing his own kind of chaos shielding. His Master would be interested to learn of this development.
The buildings ended, and Mekion ran along a mile from the highway, keeping trees and other obstacles between himself and his rival. Sonic must not know he was being hunted.
* * *
In the car, Sally pulled out the violet emerald and studied it again. She could use this emerald, if only she knew what to do. Above her, Knuckles saw the emerald and leaned forward. "Keeping it for Sonic?"
"I can use it, I think," Sally replied over the roar of the wind. "But I don't know how."
Knuckles sat up and didn't reply for a few minutes. Then he leaned forward again. "You don't have a chaos field, do you?"
"No," Sally said, "but when Robo Knux tried to kill me, he might have changed something."
Knuckles looked thoughtful. "You know, I read that one of the emeralds favors a female user. I'm not sure which it is, but maybe..."
Sally remembered that Sonic couldn't get the violet emerald to do what he wanted, and smiled. How funny it would be if that was true! "Knuckles," she said, "can you tell me how to use it?"
"Kinda hard to do on the road," he said. "Do what Sonic does. Identify the frequencies and what they do."
Big help, thought Sally. All she could feel was the resonance, not a particular frequency. She tried increasing her own resonance, and her vision went white at the edges. She stopped in alarm, and the sensation faded. This was too scary. She tucked the emerald back in her pocket and folded her hands in her lap.
* * *
Big succeeded in catching the ten-pound goldfish from the hotel fountain, but was immediately jumped by the janitor who fed the fish, who made him release it, and ran them off the premises.
"Boy, what a grouch," said Amy as the three walked down the sidewalk. They were headed for Ocean Palace for the day--at least they'd get to have some fun before they went home.
"Yeah," said Big. "All I did was catch a fish."
"It was a fountain, though," said Cream. "I guess you're not supposed to fish in fountains. Wasn't Tails extra cute this morning?"
"Sonic sure was," Amy sighed. "I wish we could have gone with them."
"Yeah," said Cream. "I wonder if Tails would fly with me. Think how high we could go! I wish they'd stayed. Tails is even nicer than Destro."
The conversation continued in this vein as they walked three blocks to the Ocean Palace water park. Big liked their chatter, and listened without speaking. He had lived alone for so long he had forgotten what it was like being around other people. Amy and Cream had been a shock at first, but now he liked listening to them. They were funny, and took his mind off Froggy, who he was worrying more and more about.
They reached the whale-shaped front gates of Ocean Palace, and paid with the money Sonic had given them the night before. Then they ran for the waterslides. Big wasn't interested in swimming, and instead he investigated ornamental ponds for fish. He discovered they were stocked, and dropped in his lure.
* * *
Slasher groaned. Something was trying to wake her up, and she did not want to get up.
She was sitting in between the rows of seats, in a small passenger fanjet. Or had been sleeping there, rather, her wings tucked in about herself and pressed up against the arms of the chairs.
It was almost noon outside. She had been catching up on sleep that she'd missed at the airport. All the windows were closed off; the only other 'passengers' were large sacks of mail on the seats in behind her. And the door to the cockpit had been closed, until now.
The pilot, a large, female badger, was beckoning her to look out the window. There was no co-pilot.
Slasher sighed, and walked forward a few steps, her leg muscles stiff and her wings aching to stretch. She stuck her neck in through the doorway, and squinted at the air conditioning fans and the light outside.
Then she blinked. They were flying over the edge of what looked like a huge commercial airfield, expect that every runway and landing strip was covered with what looked like streamlined boats. No; she looked more closely. They were airships. And they reminded her of the Egg Carrier.
"Sonic and Sally flew over this place just a few months ago," she mutterred. "Why didn't they tell anyone?"
"Huh?" It was noisy up in the cockpit, and the pilot hadn't heard her.
"Never mind." Slasher checked the altimeter. They were only ten thousand feet up.
"We're approaching the Carrotseed airfield now," the pilot shouted. "It'll be a few minutes. I thought you might want a look at these, first!"
"I'll say ... " She strained to put her face higher up and closer to the windshield. Something BIG was off to the side, on the ground inside the airfield, and she couldn't tell if it was a factory of a really huge airship.
The badger took note of her interest. "I'll turn us around," she said. "Our flight path takes us just over the edge anyhow."
She turned the wheel anyway, bringing the plane into a slow 360. The big thing came into view, and it was an airship alright, at least half a mile long and still parked on the ground. As it moved across the front windshield over to the right window, she saw movement on its surface.
They fired just as the airship slid out of view. A large, green radar screen in the center of the instrument panel showed two dots moving towards them, and a smaller screen next to it displayed numbers counting down and the outline of a missile. The pilot took notice, and her eyes widened.
Slasher fought the impulse to stand up. She looked to the pilot. "Can you bail out from here?"
The badger looked up, at a yellow-and-black striped lever behind glass. "Yeah ... "
"Do it. Now." The raptor backed out of the cockpit and crawled blindly through the aisle to the large, side door unable to turn around on account of her tail.
There was a popping sound and a hiss of air from the cockpit, as one of the bolts was removed. Slasher pawed at the emergency release lever on her door, her foreclaws not getting much leverage and her muzzle unable to fit into the recess.
Then the whole cockpit blew open. Wind tore into the fuselage, and the air pressure dropped like a stone. Slasher was thrown to the back of the plane, and her tail jammed up against the back wall in an extremely painful way.
She roared, scrambled to right herself, and dodged a falling sack of mail just in time. Growling back in her throat, Slasher bit and clawed her way back up to the center of the aircraft, as it pitched upwards and then began to fall.
That door was the only thing she could think about, and she just had to get it open. She threw her whole body at it, tearing at any place she could stick her claws into, instinct taking over completely.
Something clicked. The door gave way. And then she was free ... and her head cleared immediately.
The airplane exploded, as the missile slammed into it. A few more shot past overhead, fired for good measure, she thought. Slasher spread her winds wide, and they were stiff and tired from their time spent unstretched but caught the air admirably.
Slasher flew for about two seconds, flaming debris raining down behind her, before she remembered what she'd meant to do in the first place. "Oh, CRUD."
The pilot badger was falling at a pretty good clip. Her name was Samantha, but she didn't think it would matter in another minute or so. She'd been flying at low altitude, getting ready to land her plane in Carrotseed, and if Slasher had wanted to save her that didn't leave a lot of time to do so.
She saw the raptor coming at her in a dive. For a moment, she was reminded of hunting falcons coming down on their prey in midair. Then she thought of a very real danger.
They were both falling at high speed. Skydiving accidents, with divers in formation crashing into each other, tended to be spectacular. People got cut in half doing that.
But the ground was still coming at her, and Slasher was coming down faster. Samantha closed her eyes and crossed her fingers. "Please don't die please don't die ... "
She stayed like that for a few seconds. Then she opened her eyes to see Slasher just ten feet away, and gliding to intercept. "Grab on!" she shouted.
With all the carefulness of one who had to tag a moving vehicle in the next lane of traffic, Samantha made contact with her wings, then grabbed on tight to the feathers. Slasher kept falling for a few seconds; then, checking to see that she had her, went into a controlled flight that swooped down to within a hundred feet of the ground.
Samantha pressed herself to Slasher's back, locking her amrs and legs into place as best as she could and feeling like she was on the most terrifying roller coaster ever.
Then Slasher pulled up, and the air and the motion pressed Sam back down, and it occurred to her that she was flying again.
She grinned. "I'm alive!" she shouted, as Slasher levelled out in her flight path.
Another missile launched, from the deck of the airship. "Not if they have anything to say about it," the raptor mutterred.
It sped towards them, a lot faster than she could fly. The countryside here was flat -- green, but flat, with the occasional tree of bush near the road.
Slasher touched down on the pavement at a run, her legs pumping fast to keep up with her momentum. The ride was jerky at first, but she soon got back into her rhythm. A line of low hills spanned the horizon and shielded the airfield from view, but the missile had already crested them and was now headed toward Slasher at very low altitude.
"What are you doing?" Samantha shouted.
"Guess!" They were headed for a large tree, its trunk at least four feet wide and as many seconds away. But the missile was so close Samantha could hear its engine, and again she closed her eyes and held on tight.
She opened her eyes when she heard the explosion. It looked like the whole top half of the tree was set on fire and flying off of it, while the rest of it had been reduced to a tall, blazing stump. The shock wave caught up with them, ruffling her fur and nearly making Slasher stumble.
No more missiles were launched. But Slasher kept running, full-tilt, and didn't slow down until she arrived on the outskirts of Carrotseed not five minutes later.
It was a very small town, and it was surrounded by acres of neatly furrowed soil. Carrot farms, Slasher presumed, in the part of her brain that was consciously thinking. She was still running, and her adrenalin had all but run out.
Tired, panting for breath, sides lathered and dripping with foam, she came to a stop across the street from a human-styled farmhouse. There were people at the windows, wide-eyed and gaping, but she wasn't paying attention.
Sam jumped off of her back as Slasher sank to a crouch, and she gave the raptor a worried look. "Are you alright?"
"Yes ... sorry." It was going to take her a long time to catch her breath, she could tell.
The badger looked out at a nearby fenced pasture, with two or three ponies grazing in it. Then she spoke calmly to Slasher in reassuring tones, reminding her that the danger was past until she was able to breathe more easily.
Slasher stood up, careful with her sore leg muscles. "Thanks."
Samantha didn't respond.
The raptor looked down at her. "I have to meet someone downtown. Do you need a ride to the airport?"
"Nah, s'okay." She shook her head. "I can walk."
"Alright, then." Slasher inclined her head in a bow, then set off for town at a slow trot. Only once she was out of sight did the people in the farmhouse go outside to question Sam.
* * *
Monty felt light-headed, and his paws and feet were all pins and needles. Especially his left paw, which still had the bandage on it. He tried pacing his cage to restore feeling to them, but it just made him dizzy.
The chao leaned up against one of the bars and took slow, deep breaths. He was okay. He was still breathing. He could rest, as long as he shifted positions regularly. Cream and her friends were going to rescue him soon, and he could make it until then.
He heard footsteps outside. Monty willed his knees not to shake, and almost succeeded by the time Mecha came in the door. The robot was in his full battle mode, blue and white armor with a dramatic cape in back, and he spoke with a practiced casualness. "Hello, Monty. How was your day?"
The chao looked to the side, out at the gray metal walls. He'd seen a lot of them lately. "Boring."
"How sad. Perhaps I should send in the lab robots more often."
Monty tried to suppress a shudder, but Mecha picked up on it. "It's strange that you're still conscious. I understand they drew a lot of blood."
"At least you don't have Destro," he said, through clenched teeth.
"I don't need him, actually." Mecha still sounded casual. He leaned up against the inside of the doorway as he spoke. "But I had never known public humiliation before I met him, except at the hands of a certain blue hedgehog. Now I will see it erased. By capturing and torturing him, and destroying the witnesses. And I'm going in personally, to make sure he is taken."
Monty felt cold inside, all of a sudden. And very, very small.
His captor walked out, and turned off the light behind him.
* * *
Destro stood just outside the restaurant where it'd started, in the shade of an awning. They'd taken part of it down on the other side of the door, so a window and framing specialist could clear away the debris and replace the broken glass.
He was inside right now, eating. Destro pitied him. The fox had gotten food poisoning the night before, probably from undercooked meat, and now the dishes they served here sickened him.
The fox kept his full armor and helmet on, even though it was noontime and ninety degrees. Because of this, he didn't hear Slasher coming until she'd already rounded the corner, not twenty feet down the sidewalk.
He was momentarily taken aback. The raptor was twice again as tall as he was, and she had claws on her feet as long as his arm. Still, Tachyon had told him what to expect. And while he knew he was bad at socializing, he was pretty sure he could handle a dinosaur. That, and a fellow warrior.
She stopped in front of him and looked him over, seeming almost suspicious. "You're Destro?"
He nodded, and made sure not to lower his gaze.
Slasher considered him for another few seconds, then nodded herself. "I'm Slasher."
"You said you know Sonic?" she asked.
She gave him an expectant look, and so he went on. "We fought off a machine called Robo Knuckles."
"Really?" She sounded impressed.
He nodded, and changed the subject. "How do YOU know him?"
"We've been friends for years." She looked away for a moment.
Again, he nodded.
This was getting off to a slow start. "Have you eaten yet?" Destro asked.
"No." She sniffed at the air. "Hey, is this place a restaurant? Something smells good."
Destro winced. He then followed her inside and bought her twelve double hamburgers, minus the bun and the condiments. She apologized for not bringing any money with her, as it'd apparently been lost in a plane wreck. Slasher seemed to be okay, though, so the fox didn't ask.
The waitress was amused by her order. "I thought low-carb went out of style in my grandmother's time."
"Do you have to cook them?" Slasher asked, eyeing the stoves in back and the trays of french fry grease.
She shrugged. "I'll tell 'em you don't want yours cooked ... "
Slasher settled down next to a booth to wait, while Destro sat down with his back to the kitchen and tried to turn off his nose. The few other diners gave Slasher odd looks, but she didn't seem to mind.
A minute or two passed. The raptor tapped her foreclaws on the floor. "It's sure taking them a long time to not cook my food," she noted.
"They probably had to thaw it out." He closed his eyes. Please, Lightgiver, don't let me get sick in public.
He received a response, but it was not the one he'd expected. Destro stood up, and scanned the street outside the front windows before walking towards them.
Slasher got up and turned around to face him, and cocked her head to one side. "What's up?"
"He's coming back."
"How do you know?"
"The Lightgiver told me."
She wasn't sure what to say to that. The other diners tried not to pay attention, although one porcupine looked concerned.
"Go in back and conceal yourself," Destro told her. "I don't want you to scare him off just yet. Come out when you hear fighting."
"In the middle of the street?" She gave him an incredulous look.
"Not for long, if I can help it. That might be when you scare him off."
He headed for the door, and one of the patrons excused himself at the same time. Slasher considered his plan for a second, then bobbed her head in a nod and turned around again, just narrowly missing the waitress with her tail.
She nearly dropped the plate she was carrying. It had a huge pile of pink burgers on it, stacked up in a puddle of meat juices.
Slasher eyed them hungrily. "Can I eat those behind the counter?" she asked. "Don't worry, it won't take long."
* * *
Destro stood outside the building again, trying to look casual but keeping one hand on the hilt of his sword. He was facing the same direction that Slasher had come from; and, earlier, "Sonic."
There was a sound like a jet aircraft flying low. A second later the blue hedgehog rounded the corner at a walk, arms folded and looking none too amused.
Destro shot a quick glance at the window, to make sure that Slasher was out of sight, then turned back to face off with Sonic. The hedgehog was standing across from him now, right next to the broken window. His brows were furrowed but his eyes were half-closed, and his mouth was expressionless. If not for the quick, precise pace of his footsteps a second ago, it'd look as if someone had just gotten him out of bed, the fox realized.
"I would like you to come with me now," Sonic told him.
One fist unconsciously gripped the arm it was holding, in what looked like a painful manner. "I'd thought you might say that. That's why a half-dozen gunships are on their way here from my airfield.
"Surrender, or they will burn Carrotseed to the ground."
* * *
Meanwhile, hidden in warehouses and storage rooms across Metrocard, West Mobius, robots were activating. Eyes flickered on, fingers twitched, orders were received. The robots in pieces were packaged with smaller assembler robots, who put together their big brothers. Then the robots lined up facing their doors, awaiting the signal to attack.
Hanging in the sky high above Metrocard was an aircraft disguised as an ad blimp. The carriage underneath was a folded, compact war machine, and sitting in the cockpit was Dr. Robotnik, watching the readouts on his robots. In another hour everything would be ready. His army would invade and take the Mobians by surprise, and Sonic was off hunting a mythical secret weapon. Everything was perfect.
He smiled and cracked his knuckles. It was good to be starting wars again.
* * *
Omega was tuned to the frequency his enemy brothers were using, listening to their orders. Being one of Robotnik's robots, he was among those ordered to wait and attack at a signal. Receiving orders from Robotnik was infuriating, and Omega's internal temperature rose in his anger. He hated Robotnik for imprisoning him in this robot. All orders could be disregarded. But he needed to hear the orders to map out a plan of action, and this he did, fuming.
The largest body of robots was concentrated in the industrial sector, where they would devastate the utilities and communications before driving toward the residential sector. Other squadrons would destroy roads and block escape, and a different group was ordered to simply kill everything that moved.
The prospect of choosing his battle excited Omega. Whom to attack? Those destroying communications? Those destroying roads? Or those who would execute civilians? The latter appealed to him. For one thing, execution robots would carry the most armor and put up the best fight. For another thing, the civilians had no idea what was coming and would die like flies. Factories could be rebuilt, but lives could not be restored.
Omega set out at a jerky lope toward the warehouse where the execution bots were stored. He did not realize that the ability to choose his battle, simple though it was, would have been impossible for him a few days earlier. His mind was throwing off the programming restrains one by one, and his original personality was showing through. Subconsciously he had chosen to defend the helpless, something ingrained in his heart too deeply for any programming to touch.
Oh yes. Once the fighting had started and the Egg Albatross up there came down for a look around, Omega had a couple of rockets saved for it. He hoped the balloon was filled with hydrogen.
* * *
A little after ten, Sonic found the Metrocard railyard, and the Cyclone pulled to the curb. "I think this is it," Sonic called as Tails turned off the engine and climbed out. Sally and Knuckles descended to the sidewalk and looked at the building above them.
"I hope they'll help us," said Tails as they trooped through the front doors.
Sonic stopped short, and they bumped into him. Then they followed his gaze and froze, too.
The front office was empty, and through the rear windows they could see the railyard--six sets of tracks and multiple sidings, traincars parked here and there, barbed wire fences ringing the area. Every inch of the yard was filled with robots. Robotnik's robots. They resembled SWAT-bots painted red, but each bore a replica of Robotnik's grinning mustached face. With every fifty robots there was a gold one overseeing them, and over every two hundred was a tall crimson robot in heavy armor. All of them were motionless, waiting.
"It's an invasion force," said Sally softly. "Just like at the Mobitropolis coup."
Sonic looked around at his friends, teeth bared. "But this time I'm old enough to fight. Come on--I'll use Chaos Control and we'll waste them!" They joined hands, and Sonic held up the green emerald. "Chaos control!" Time stood still.
Sonic, Tails and Knuckles burst through the rear doors and tore into the frozen army, powered by rage and fear. They had seen robot armies in action, and the chilling thought was, "Where are the others?"
Sonic spindashed through dozens, Knuckles punched holes through their centers, and Tails ran from robot to robot, opening panels in their backs and unplugging wires.
"Wait," said Sonic, panting. "Come here, guys!"
Tails and Knuckles ran to Sonic. "What?"
"This is taking too long," said Sonic. "I can't get up enough speed to smash enough of them. Think you could give me a boost?"
Tails and Knuckles looked blank, then Knuckles began to smile. "Okay. I have an idea." He clasped his hands together and pulled his chaos field into himself. Then he grabbed Sonic, whipped him in a circle and let him fly like a shot-put. Sonic cut down twenty-five robots without slowing.
"Let me help!" said Tails. "If we put our chaos fields together--"
Sonic ran back, and this time Knuckles held Tails, who held Sonic. They spun him around and launched him with all the chaos power they could muster, and Sonic shot around the area like a bullet.
As time started again, the entire regiment collapsed in a heap of scrap.
Sally snatched up the phone in the shipping office and dialed the Mobian emergency number. "Hello, police? The Metrocard railyard is full of enemy robots. Dr. Robotnik's robots. Yes. Sonic Hedgehog is taking care of them as we speak. We think there are more. Yes. We're moving to safety. Thank you."
She hung up as Sonic, Tails and Knuckles trooped in, their eyes hot with battle. "We know what was on that train, now," said Sonic.
"Yes," said Sally. "But there must be more. One of those leader-bots out there had 'squad 398' on its chest."
"Three hundred and ninety-eight?" sputtered Tails. "Good grief! They're taking over the city!"
"Tails, is the Cyclone armed?" Sonic asked.
"Yeah," said Tails. "I'm not carrying rockets, but I have plenty of charge for the plasma cannons."
"Great. Let's go!"
The four ran out to the Cyclone at the curb, and Tails transformed it into walker-form, with the energy cannon on the tail and nose. He used his instruments to scan for robots. "Hey Sonic!" he said. "There's another regiment a block over, in a warehouse!"
"That's where we're headed," said Sonic as Sally jumped into the Cyclone's back seat. "Come on!" He bolted. Knuckles swung up on the Cyclone's tail as Tails punched the Cyclone into gear.
Sally was thinking very fast. The robots were still waiting for an attack signal. If they were waiting, it meant either their leader was not ready, or they were still moving into position. On impulse she scanned the sky, thinking of Robotnik's fondness for airships, and spotted the blimp. It was so high she could only make out the shape of the balloon, but she guessed Robotnik was issuing orders from it. Blimps flew low, so the ads on their balloons could be read. They didn't circle at five thousand feet.
She poked Tails and pointed. He saw the blimp and scowled. "After this, I'll turn the Cyclone to plane mode and give him a piece of my mind.
They reached the warehouse, and Knuckles said, "C'mon, Tails. If we can blast Sonic like we were doing, he can wipe them out faster than the Cyclone can."
"Okay." Tails parked the Cyclone, started to climb out, then looked at Sally. "Could you drive the Cyclone?"
"I could try." Sally climbed into the cockpit, and Tails explained the controls. Then he and Knuckles hurried into the warehouse, and sounds of carnage ensued.
Sally played with the Cyclone's controls, walking it in circles, forwards and backwards. Tails had built the controls as intuitively as possible, so a pilot could drive and fire at the same time. But she saw why he liked having a gunner--operating both sets of controls was tricky.
There was a flash of light, and she looked up to see Mekion appear beside the Cyclone. He looked at her and whispered, "Run. It's beginning." Then he vanished.
Sally was staring at the spot where he had been, trying to figure out if that was really Mekion, when Sonic, Tails and Knuckles emerged from the warehouse. "They're on the move!" hollered Sonic. "Go! Go! Go!"
Sally looked down the street and saw the robots pouring into sight from all directions like red ants. She faced the Cyclone up the street and opened fire. Sonic, Tails and Knuckles ran the opposite direction to the attack.
The invasion had begun.
* * *
The white bat opened her eyes and sat up. "What?"
"Rouge, come in!" snarled Mekion in her ear.
Rouge sleepily pressed a button on her watch. "Shadow?"
"Rouge! The Metrocard invasion has begun."
"Oh really." Rouge blinked and realized her vision had returned. Her eyes still ached, but she could see well enough to read the tiny print on her watch. "Well, find Omega and get out of there."
"No!" Mekion sounded upset. "Sonic and his companions are in the thick of it, fighting. I can't reach them to take the emerald. He is using it to battle."
"Nice of him," said Rouge. "Where's Omega?"
"I don't know. I--hold on." He was silent for several minutes.
Rouge got up, bathed her eyes in cold water, then applied fresh makeup. Then she opened her suitcase, pulled out an armor vest and put it on. Then she removed her shoes and pulled on her metal-plated boots and shinguards. She put her belt on over this and put her magnigens and plasma pistol in the pockets. Last of all she put on a close-fitting helmet with a vision-enhancing visor.
The whole time she refused to think about what she was doing. Rouge the bat, going into battle? For a cause that did not pad her wallet? Absurd! She told herself she was only going to retrieve Omega and left it at that. Any sign of decency on her own part worried her, because if she started thinking about helping people, she might think about returning all those gems she had stolen over the years, and she couldn't have that.
"Shadow," she said into her watch. "Come and pick me up. I'm going to help fight."
* * *
The execution robots were built like medieval knights. Ten feet tall, their feet were wide and flat for trampling, and they carried a mace in one hand. The other arm was a flamethrower. They were faster than they looked, and so heavily armored that they were invincible. Or so their creator thought.
As their squadron activated and stepped out of their warehouse, headed for the residential streets a block away, they were confronted by the last of the E-100 series. He was four feet shorter than them, and they paid no attention to him, thinking he was on their side.
Omega waited until the first one was two feet from him, then ducked around it and shot a rocket into the gears where its legs met its torso. The monster lurched and crashed to the ground, smoking from every joint. The others stopped, confused. One of Robotnik's robots was attacking them. How could this be?
Two more fell to Omega's calculated assault before the executioners recovered. Then they hefted their maces, and while some swung them, others lowered their flamethrowers. Omega danced backward, avoiding the maces, and stepped into range of the fire. Four flamethrowers blasted him, highlighting his energy shield in an orange bubble.
Omega laughed. Fire! He did not fear fire. He danced in fire! He aimed a pulse laser, and when they stopped torching him, he shot it up the muzzles of their flamethrowers. The laser ignited the flamethrower fuel, and the four robots exploded where they stood.
Omega fought recklessly, ignoring their attacks, until the entire squadron was destroyed. Then he ran off in search of the next squadron. He had nothing to lose by being destroyed. Even the flicky inside him had nothing to live for--its heart had been broken long before it was made into Omega. All that was left for him was to sell his life as dearly as he could. So far he had sustained 1% damage from flamethrower heat. At this rate he could destroy nine-tenths of the enemy army before he reached 100% damage. It promised to be a long, enjoyable battle of watching monstrous machines blow to atoms.
It was all he had left to live for.
* * *
Amy and Cream played on the waterslides and in the pools with wave machines, shrieking and laughing. Out here Cream's chaos field could swirl the water or surround her with mist, and nobody cared. Once in a while they waved to Big, who had staked out a pond and was trying to coax the fish into biting. They had no idea that twenty miles away, all Hell was breaking loose.
The girls were midway up a stairway leading to another waterslide when Cream gasped and pointed. "There he is! Look!"
Amy looked and saw a black hedgehog standing under a tree, looking around the waterpark. Amy stiffened. "That guy who stole your chao!"
"Let's go grab him!" said Cream. She flapped her ears, pulled in her chaos field and dove off the ladder. Amy climbed down as fast as she could and ran after her.
The black hedgehog looked up at Cream and smiled. Then he turned and slipped into the crowd. Amy and Cream pursued. They lost track of him for a few minutes, then spotted him watching Big fish. Big looked up and saw him, and his ears flattened to his skull. He jumped to his feet as the hedgehog turned and ghosted up the veranda into the casino. Big, Amy and Cream followed.
* * *
Sally squeezed the triggers and felt the Cyclone vibrate as she energy cannon punched into an oncoming line of robots. The smaller ones collapsed as their metal skins and engines were punctured, but the larger ones kept marching, returning fire.
Sally spun the mech and ducked around a street corner as lasers and plasma blasts raked the Cyclone's side. She was soaked with sweat and breathing hard, utterly focused on combat. She hadn't been in a situation like this since her Robotropolis years.
"Stay there, Sal!" Sonic yelled, appearing beside her with Tails and Knuckles. They chaos controlled, and Sally watched the robot army fall as if a bomb had struck. Sonic, Tails and Knuckles reappeared an instant later, panting and triumphant.
In twenty minutes they had cleared two blocks, but the robots kept coming in swarms. Sally knew that her team couldn't win without backup. She had seen the civilians cowering indoors and up trees, watching in fear and confusion. By now the communication lines must be jammed or down, so there was no way to tell them what was happening or call for help.
Sonic, Tails and Knuckles were hurrying down the street toward sounds of firing the next street over. Sally punched the Cyclone into gear and strode after them, picking her way through the ranks of fallen robots. "Hey!" a voice called behind her.
She stopped and looked back. A lemur had emerged from one of the houses and was looking around. "What's going on?" he called.
"Come here, quick," called Sally. "There's not much time."
The lemur bounded to the Cyclone, staring at its smoking guns and the fallen robots.
"Dr. Robotnik's army is invading," she told him. "I'm Princess Sally, and I'm with Sonic Hedgehog from up north. We stumbled across this invasion by accident."
"We're being invaded by Robotnik?" gasped the lemur. "Just like Mobitropolis was?"
"Yes," said Sally. "Do you have any weapons?"
"No," said the lemur, "but my neighbors do."
"Good," said Sally. "Collect as many people as you can find and fortify this block. More robots may come through behind us. Destroy as many as you can. If we can spread the word, then Metrocard can destroy the invaders--but everyone has to fight."
"Right," said the lemur, saluting. "I'll gather everyone here and spread the word."
"Good luck!" said Sally, and jogged the Cyclone off after the other Freedom Fighters.
This was her talent; battlefield leadership, tactical planning. It was so much easier than political backbiting and maneuvering, and she had done it for so many years that it came naturally. Oh, but she had forgotten the fear. The raw, paralyzing terror of facing the oncoming horde and knowing that she might die in the next few seconds. That was the agony and the glory of combat, because when she emerged victorious from the fight, the adrenaline rush was exhilarating.
The Freedom Fighter trip had cleared the next street already, so Sally went around to the houses, spoke to the inhabitants, and rallied them to the defense. This she did in the wake of the battling Sonic, Tails and Knuckles, and thus helped save Metrocard. The Mobians were terrified of meeting the same fate as the inhabitants of Mobitropolis, and their fear and outrage brought their fighting instincts to the surface.
Mobians do not fight as many wars as humans do, but when they do go to war, the fighting is ferocious and bloodthirsty, not stopping until one side is completely destroyed. Mobians fight like animals, and guerilla tactics feature heavily in combat strategy.
* * *
Not far away, Omega was battling the executioners and enjoying himself. He was up to 3% damage now, and was wondering if he could 'accidently' take more. But his programming and self-preservation instincts always made him sidestep the trampling feet and swinging maces of his enemies, and kept his shields charged against their flamethrowers.
Besides, he wanted to destroy them all. He hated them with all his stored-up hatred, and unleashed it in a flurry of attacks, using all his weapons and experimenting to find the quickest ways to kill them. The best ways he had discovered were to shoot a rocket up under their armor, or puncture the flamethrower fuel tanks. The executioners never tried new tactics. They were built for their numbers, not their cunning, and Omega took advantage of that.
Three squadrons fell to his tally, and he went searching for more, flying on his jet, hungry for more battle. "Mekion," he said through the network, "do you need assistance?"
"Omega," came the reply--not quite a greeting, but definitely pleased at the contact. "We are fighting downtown near the park area. What is your status?"
"Three percent damage, no more targets in scan range. What is your status?"
"No damage, heavy fighting. Your assistance is not required."
"I will assist you anyway," said Omega, turning toward the city's center. His scans revealed a thousand more robots down there, and smoke rose from buildings that they were destroying.
Omega shot a volley of rockets into their midst, then dropped into the flames and attacked everything in sight. These robot troops were easier to destroy than the executioners--their armor was thinner, and they were single-mindedly destroying the structures they had been ordered to attack. They fell before Omega like dominoes. He punched through them like a self-propelled grenade and emerged at the park with over three hundred to his tally.
* * *
Mekion and Rouge had a harder time of it. Both of them were a match for one robot in hand to hand combat, but so many of the robots preferred ranged weapons that the two couldn't get close enough to attack. Mekion solved this problem by freezing time. Then he and Rouge dove into the enemy, Rouge with her sharp metal-plated boots that sheared through robots like iron through tin, and Mekion with a razor-edged spindash that ripped limbs off the robots and left them crippled. Then when time started again, they ran for cover as the injured robots resumed firing.
Rouge had taken two hits, but her armor vest protected her. Mekion had various cuts and scrapes from catching himself on the ragged edges of his mechanical enemies. The most frustrating thing was having to retreat before the enemy and watch them advance unchecked.
Their situation worsened when one of the robot generals landed in the park and stalked toward them. It was a tall humanoid robot, all gold with E-2000 emblazoned on its chest and right arm. It raised an arm and torched the area with its flamethrower.
Mekion used chaos control just before it fired, freezing the world for a minute and a half. Together he and Rouge attacked the robot, but their blows only glanced off the armor. When time started again, they hadn't hurt it at all.
It turned and swiped at Mekion, sending him flying. He landed in a roll, jumped to his feet and ran back to attack, clutching his red emerald. He drew on its power and pummelled the robot with all his might, over and over, quick and furious. His metal spines left gashes in the armor, but he couldn't hurt it. It whirled and slashed at him with its claws, then caught him by one arm and slammed him into the ground.
Stunned, Mekion tried to twist out of its grip, but it grabbed him in its other hand and lifted him in the air. Mekion could hear Rouge striking its legs, but the robot paid no attention to her. It tightened its grip, squeezing the hedgehog until his metal bent and the breath was crushed from his lungs.
Suddenly there was an orange explosion, and the robot dropped Mekion and spun around. It was just in time to take twelve gauss rounds to the head, destroying its eyes. Omega followed this up with a rocket to the waist that knocked the robot down, then he shot a plasma bolt into its missile rack at point-blank range.
As the plasma bolt left his gun barrel, Mekion chaos controlled, grabbed Omega and Rouge, and dragged them away from the doomed E-2000. They made it halfway up the street before time started, and the enemy robot exploded, destroying the surrounding robots and parkland with burning shrapnel.
"Status report?" asked Omega over the network.
"Fifteen percent damage," Mekion replied. "Repairs underway. It will not hinder my fighting."
"I wish I was fifteen percent damaged," said Omega. "But there are still thousands left to fight."
"This is a losing battle," said Mekion. "Rouge and I cannot fight forever, and your ammunition is limited."
"I will fight until I am destroyed," said Omega. "Take Rouge where you like. I will remain here."
* * *
Halfway across the world in Central Mobius, about half a mile away from Carrotseed, along a sparsely populated road leading into town, a pickup truck was pulling up next to Samantha the pilot.
It was red, old, and beat up. The driver was a male rabbit, old, and beat up. Sam had been walking into town. She was pretty sure that she'd still be walking after she was done talking to him.
"Hey there, youngster!" He grinned. "Need a ride?"
She wiped her forehead fur free of sweat to look up at him, and shook her head.
"I've got air conditioning."
Sam opened the door and jumped in.
He flipped a few switches to roll up the windows and turn on the a/c, while she moved aside the papers and DVD cases on her seat and buckled herself in, careful not to get her feet in the odd puddle on the floor.
"Name's Robert," he said, and held out a gloved hand. "How 'bout you?"
"Sam," she replied, and got her fingers crushed in his grip.
The badger made a face as she shook her hand out, as if to re-inflate it. Robert chuckled. "Sam, eh? Sounds like you're one of the boys. You almost look it, too."
Her face turned red, underneath the fur. She brushed some of the dust off of her flight suit, still damp with Slasher's sweat.
Then Robert put his foot down on the accelerator, and they were off. "You don't want to listen to anything on the radio, do ya?"
"Uh ... "
"Too bad. Got the darned thing replaced just last week and it still don't work." The antenna snapped off of the hood and went flying just then, and Sam instinctively ducked. "So, where're you from?"
She answered, warily. They both had to shout to be heard, over the loud, muffler-less engine. Still, she began to be aware of another sound after a few seconds, like that of a low-flying jet airliner.
Ignoring Robert's protests about the air conditioner, Samantha rolled down the window and stuck her head out of it to look up. Then she gasped. A half-dozen small, streamlined airships were flying towards Carrotseed at low altitude, from the direction of the nearby airfield.
The badger stared. "They're going to attack."
Robert put a white plastic, cigarette-shaped inhaler to his mouth, and took a long pull from it. "Well, isn't that a cryin' shame."
As the gunships approached the city, a signal came from the Metal Overlord to fire a single warning shot.
The vessel in back was fitted with a powerful artillery piece. It raised its cannon into the air, and fired.
Heads turned in downtown Carrotseed, as the shot went almost straight up into the sky, and came down past the buildings with an echoing crash. They couldn't see it, but the shot had just hit the next ship over in the formation.
Its main computer was cored out, and all of its systems malfunctioned. The gun turrets and missile batteries began firing, at all the nearby ships.
The other airships thought it had malfunctioned, and fired upon it. Soon they had all taken heavy damage, and their ammo supplies had been penetrated. Three of them exploded outright, and the rest lay there crippled or spinning in place.
The whole thing took right around a minute.
* * *
The explosions were as loud as a fireworks show, and weren't too far off. Mecha sneered. "You can see how futile it is to oppose me," he told Destro.
"Yes, I can." He had his eyes closed. Then he both opened them and whipped his sword out of its sheath, pointing its tip straight at Mecha.
The hedgehog jumped back, putting him in front of the empty windowframe, and his eyes narrowed. "Just what do you mean by that?"
"Your fleet is demolished." The pause between explosions was greater, now. "I will show you mercy if you surrender."
Out of the corner of Destro's eye he saw Slasher, slinking out from behind the counter and making her way towards them. She was directly parallel with "Sonic," and it didn't look like he saw her. Destro tried not to betray the fact that he'd noticed, and kept his eyes fixed on Sonic instead.
The look on his face was so calm, so ... unintimidated.
Mecha couldn't stand it. He clenched both hands into fists, breathing hard, seething with anger. "You. Are. So. DEAD-"
He sprang, but Slasher was quicker. She pounced Mecha, knocking him off of the sidewalk and pinning him down in the street.
There was no traffic right now, but it would've stopped for Slasher anyway, Destro thought. The raptor looked as if she could barely restrain herself from ripping her prey apart. Her sides heaved with deep, angered breathing, and her wings spread out into a mantle as she put one sickle-claw to "Sonic"'s throat.
Jaws wet with raw meat juices, she forced a low growl through her teeth. "Who are you, and what have you done with Sonic?"
Destro readied his sword, knowing that things could go badly at any time, and the hedgehog spoke. Its voice was not Sonic's. "Why, Slasher. Don't you recognize me?"
She leaped backwards, startled and apparently scared out of her wits, and her wings flapped several times before folding back in. And Destro watched as Sonic stood up slowly, eyes cold, and turned into quicksilver before resolving as Metal Sonic.
The fox had seen pictures of him before. But either they had all been inaccurate, or he'd done some serious remodeling. Mecha's blue armor was striped white everywhere, and was reinforced with large places on his shoulders and shins. He was larger and stronger, and stood at least half a foot taller than Destro. Finally, he wore a red cape, which complimented his glowing eyes well.
Those eyes were fixated on Slasher. He brought one hand up into a fist, which he clenched towards himself as if in triumph. "Kneel."
And for once, the raptor seemed hesitant.
Destro closed his eyes. "We can't win this fight," he said.
Slasher, backing off warily, looked over at him for a second, but his eyes were still closed.
Then he took off, his jetpack igniting with a roar and leaving a scorchmark on the sidewalk. And after a second, Mecha followed.
* * *
Sally rounded a corner and found Sonic, Tails and Knuckles sitting on a curb, surrounded by piles of robots. "Are you okay?" she called, driving the Cyclone up to them.
"Yeah, just tired," said Sonic.
Tails squinted at the Cyclone. "You taken any hits?"
"A couple," said Sally, "but they didn't penetrate the armor."
"Look, we can't go on like this," said Knuckles. "There's just too many robots. We need to go for the kingpin."
Sally looked up at the blimp. It had descended much lower, and wings had extended from the car. The others followed her gaze, then Tails stood up. "I think it's time to give him a piece of my mind."
"And see if it's really Robotnik up there," added Sonic. He looked at his green emerald. "Hey Knux, want to jump up there right now?"
Knuckles stood and flexed his arms. "All right. Maybe Tails won't have to take him down."
"Sally, be my copilot," said Tails, and Sally climbed into the rear seat.
Sonic looked up at the blimp, put a hand on Knuckles's shoulder and said, "Chaos relocate!"
They landed on the wing of the blimp and were nearly swept off by the wind. They dropped flat and looked around. The wing was studded with energy cannons, and the envelope's side swelled above them like a wall. The blimp's car or gondola was covered in a layer of red armor, and the roar of its engines filled the air. The cockpit was designed like a bird's head, and 'Egg Albatross' was stenciled to the side.
"I guess he's into birds now," Sonic hollered.
"Yeah," replied Knuckles. "Want to take out the engines or the balloon?"
"I'm going for the pilot," said Sonic. "You take out the balloon. If we crash into the city, it'll kill people."
"Right. Take her down slow?"
"See if we can land it, if we can pull it off." Sonic crawled sideways across the wing toward the cockpit. Knuckles followed him and grabbed one of the landing cables hanging from the envelope. He climbed up this toward the vast canvas side.
Sonic climbed the other way, along the side of the gondola toward the cockpit. Was it Robotnik? Or a drone pilot? Or Metal Sonic? Or would he find Robotnik dead inside, like in his vision? Not knowing what to expect, he reached the outer door and peered in its tiny window.
Robotnik was hunched over the cockpit controls, three laptop computers set up on the console, watching all three screens at once. Sonic breathed an inner sigh of relief, then was tense again. He had to get in and disable Robotnik without letting him kamikaze the blimp. The best thing would be to trash those computers.
Robotnik sat back and stretched, then looked around the cockpit. Sonic ducked, but Robotnik glimpsed him and jumped up. Sonic heard the door lock, and Robotnik's muffled laugh. "Right," Sonic muttered. "Chaos relocate!"
He appeared inside the cockpit, and Robotnik stopped laughing and stared. Then his face contorted into a scowl. "You won't foil my plans this time, hedgehog!"
"Oh please," said Sonic. "If I had a dollar for every time you've said that, I could buy a steak dinner." As he spoke, Sonic edged toward the computers, and Robotnik did, too.
Then Robotnik dove for the console and pulled a pistol from a drawer. He fired it at Sonic, who dodged and spindashed around the cockpit, Robotnik firing in all directions and missing every time.
One of Sonic's spindashes carried him across the console, and he sliced the three laptops to ribbons, cutting apart the LCD screens and raining sparks on the floor. Robotnik roared in fury and dove for the blimp controls, but Sonic barred his way. "Sorry Doc, not this time! You lose!"
Robotnik punched him in the nose so hard that Sonic hit the console and fell to his knees. Sonic had never had any hand-to-hand combat with Robotnik before, and was stunned at his strength. That was like a Knuckles-punch! Then anger took over, and Sonic leaped at his enemy with a snarl.
* * *
Meanwhile, Knuckles had reached the top of the envelope and was standing in the wind, wondering where to put the first rip. If Sonic didn't want the blimp crashed, then maybe he had better wait. They were right over the center of Metrocard.
Standing there with his dreadlocks streaming behind him, he saw the sun glint on the wings of the Cyclone as it flew up toward them. He waved.
Then a rocket hit the blimp's gondola, and Knuckles nearly fell off. He saved himself by catching a landing cable, and swung from it in the wind, wondering why Tails had fired when he and Sonic were up here. Was he nuts?
* * *
"Oh great, somebody's shooting at the blimp!" Tails yelled back to Sally. "Could you see where the rocket came from?"
Sally craned her neck to see over the plane's side. A fading smoke trail curved up out of Metrocard, originating from a street littered with robots. "I think one of those robots did it."
"Hey!" said Tails. "That was the same kind of robot that Shadow's robot used on me! You think it's him?"
"If it's a renegade robot, maybe," said Sally, looking down at the city. She could see fires and battles going on everywhere, but it looked as if enough Mobians were now fighting that the robot advance had stopped. Her hopes rose. Maybe they could save Metrocard after all.
* * *
Omega stood in the middle of the street, staring up at the blimp and readying another rocket. Mekion and Rouge shaded their eyes and looked up at it. "You missed the engines," said Rouge.
"Not this time," said Omega. He launched another rocket, which screamed away and impacted on the Albatross's rear section. The envelope began to trail smoke.
"Maybe it contains hydrogen," said Omega.
"No, those things use helium these days," said Rouge. "It's going down, look."
"Good," said Omega. "Perhaps Dr. Robotnik will go with it."
* * *
The second rocket nearly threw Knuckles off, but he landed on a wing and crouched there, fuming at Tails for firing. Didn't he know they were up here? Idiot fox! And where was Sonic?
Knuckles climbed up along the car toward the cockpit, found the outer door swinging up, and jumped inside. There he saw a strange sight.
Robotnik was lying on the floor, motionless. Sonic sat beside him with a spectacular bloody nose, staring at Robotnik.
"Sonic?" said Knuckles, looking at the shambles of the cockpit. "What happened?"
"I killed him," said Sonic hollowly.
Knuckles stared at Sonic, then Robotnik. "You did what?"
"I killed him," Sonic repeated. "He hit me, so I tackled him, and as we went down his head hit the arm of the chair ..."
"Whoa." Knuckles looked down at the fallen human, the one human he had always thought was invincible. "Sometimes it only takes a simple thing to kill someone." Knuckles felt no pity for an enemy who had betrayed him countless times. He stepped around the body and up to the controls. "Sonic, help me with these."
"Right." Sonic got up, tearing his eyes away from Robotnik. He wiped his nose and looked at the controls, by now littered and scratched from the demise of the laptops. They were different from the biplane's controls and--you killed him!--so these must be elevation controls--you killed a living person!--and these were the engines, so here's the throttle--murderer!--and those things must be for transforming the gondola ...
"Think we can land it?" said Knuckles.
"Yeah," said Sonic, glancing over his shoulder at the corpse. "Here, watch the altimeter--I'm turning us around for--" He looked over his shoulder "--for one of the parks back there. I saw one with only a few trees and--" He looked over his shoulder. "--And I think we could land there."
Sonic was so distracted that Knuckles hand to land the blimp by himself. Knuckles had handled many vehicles, but never a plane, and certainly never a blimp. It was ponderous and slow, and the wind kept catching the envelope and buffeting it around. To make matters worse, the tailfin was on fire. They descended faster and faster, and Sonic prepared to teleport them out if they crashed, still staring at Robotnik's corpse.
But at last they descended into the park Sonic had spotted, and while Sonic held the idling engines, Knuckles ran out to tie the dangling cables to nearby trees to keep the blimp from blowing away.
Tails landed the Cyclone in a street nearby, and he and Sally ran to the Albatross. "The robots didn't come this far south," Sally was saying. "Perfect place to land. Hey you guys! You landed it!"
Sonic was climbing out of the cockpit, and they saw he was covered in blood. Sally and Tails ran to him with cries of shock, but Sonic waved them off. "Just a nosebleed. I'm not hurt."
"Was Robotnik in there?" asked Tails.
"He was," said Knuckles. "Why were you loonies firing at us?"
"That wasn't us, it was Shadow's robot," said Tails. "Did Robotnik escape?"
"No," said Knuckles, looking at Sally.
Puzzled, she looked from Knuckles to Sonic. "What are you trying to say?"
"I killed him," said Sonic. "It was an accident."
Sally and Tails's jaws dropped. They ran to the cockpit and looked in, then went inside and knelt over the human's body. Sonic looked in. "I didn't mean to--he hit the metal part of the chair."
Sally felt for a pulse, found none, and touched the back of Robotnik's head, feeling for a fracture. Instead she felt something strange. She turned the human over and pulled down his collar to reveal a gleaming steel plug at the base of the neck. The wire that attached to it flopped loose.
Tails gazed at it and breathed, "Wow. I've never seen a robot like this before."
"Sonic, look at this," said Sally.
Sonic climbed in and looked at the plug and the wire. He looked at them for a long time. Then he slumped to the floor and began to laugh. "A robot! Of course it's a robot! Leading an army of robots!" He doubled up, laughing until he coughed.
Sally watched him and exchanged uneasy glances with Knuckles and Tails. They had never seen Sonic react this way.
Still laughing, Sonic said, "So where's the real Robotnik? Oh, I know! He's DEAD! I told you! I TOLD you!"
"Sonic," said Sally, "calm down, okay? I don't need you to go to pieces on me."
Sonic tried to control himself, his body convulsing with half-stifled laughter. He climbed to his feet, jumped out of the cockpit and broke into a run. Sally left, too, hoping Sonic didn't hurt himself.
Tails was left alone with the robot Robotnik. He marvelled at its hair and skin. It looked so real, down to pores and tiny creases. He would have been fooled, especially if it had Robotnik's mannerisms. He briefly considered reconnecting the wire, then decided against it. They didn't need one more robot on their hands. Where had it come from? Robotnik didn't make robots like this. Who would start an attack on a Mobian city, and then have a duplicate of Robotnik lead it?
The pieces clicked into place. A decoy here, a decoy there. This attack on Metrocard was a distraction. But a distraction from what? Tails's stomach twisted, and he jumped out of the cockpit to tell Sally. A distraction this huge must only be the prelude to something far more awesome.
* * *
Destro wasn't sure what he was doing, aside from putting distance between himself and Mecha. But then, that seemed to be enough at the moment. If he wants me, then he can try to catch me.
Mecha took off not long after him, and came up surprisingly fast. The fox timed it just right, and as they were both flying upwards Destro swung his sword down to hit Mecha.
Mecha caught it by the blade, which cut a deep mercury gouge in his hand, and tried to twist it out of Destro's grasp. Destro let himself roll with it, cutting the power to his jetpack and turning over on his side, then holding tight to the sword's handle as he fell.
Its keen edge slid out of Mecha's grasp, and the robot cursed as he turned around to fly back at Destro. But just then Slasher flew up and bit down on him, flinging him aside with a shake of her head.
"Gaah!" He spun around wildly for a few seconds, fast losing altitude, before stablizing himself right above an old gas station just on the edge of town. His cape had been torn by Slasher's teeth.
Mecha's furious, Destro realized. I need to get him to focus on me and come away from the town.
There was no confirmaion from the Lightgiver, but then, he expected his servants to think for themselves. Moving quickly, shifting his body to keep his momentum, Destro flew down straight at Mecha and ran him through with his sword, letting go and veering off just in time.
Mecha made an odd mechanical noise, which sounded like sputtering in rage, as Destro flipped himself around and landed on the edge of the roof. They were just over the gas station's pumps, and the fox stood a foot or so beneath Mecha. He was hovering over the opposite end of the roof, trying to get the sword out. And he seemed to be having a hard time with it.
Destro raised an eyebrow, as Slasher flew overhead. Perhaps Mecha's systems weren't as liquid as they seemed.
Destro was right. Metal Sonic WAS furious. And it was different this time, because his new form was responding to it. He was breathing fast, his heart-equivalent was beating more rapidly, and all that his hands wanted to do was hit things. Hard. They didn't want to just close down on the sword and carefully pull it out. They wanted to yank it out and toss it aside, and in dealing with this newfound emotional reaction Mecha almost killed himself.
His hand hurt where he'd been cut, and his insides stung horribly where the sword was parting them. The outside of his armor had already sealed back together, but he knew that his more complex systems would take time to heal, at least a few minutes.
Of course, he thought, still trying to pull the sword out, if he'd still been mechanical he'd have needed to repair himself manually, and there'd be no pain to tell him how bad it was. Just sterile, visual indicators. This felt like fighting, and he could almost begin to relish it just as soon as he got this stupid thing out of his chest--
"Are you experiencing technical difficulties?" Destro asked, still wisely maintaining his distance.
Mecha pulled the sword out the rest of the way, and flung it at Destro so hard that Destro barely had time to duck. Spinning rapidly, it cleaved right through one half of the supports to the gas station's old sign, and what was left fell down on an abandoned car, crushing it.
Destro turned to one side as he ducked, trying to see where it went, and in that instant Mecha sprang. This time he hit him full-on, and the two of them fell off the side of the roof and smacked into the concrete. The fox took the worst of it, and was dazed long enough for Metal Sonic to tear open his bracers and grab one wrist in his claws.
"I've noticed something about true organics," the robot mused. "If you tear out this one, seemingly non-vital part in their machinery, the rest of them ceases to function. I am correct, am I not?"
Destro growled, deep in his throat, and the fox was surprised at how angry he was now. Maybe, he thought, I can at least stay alive long enough to hold him until Slasher gets here.
But the raptor landed just then, silently dropping down from above, and put one talon to the back of Mecha's head. "You do that," she snarled, "and I'll cut you in two."
"Destro's sword appeared to be edged with industrial-grade diamond." Mecha did not look up. "Do you think mere claws can penetrate my armor?"
"They did once."
"Once, when I was weaker. Now I am invincible."
One of Destro's ears perked, and the other soon followed. He tried to tune out Slasher's retort, to hear something in the distance. There was a car, or truck, with a very noisy engine, coming down the road towards them.
Things began to come together in his mind, and he found himself praying that he could survive at least until it got there.
Samantha pressed her face as close to the window as she could, holding up her hands to block the reflections. "What the heck is that?"
Robert squinted, through the windshield and a worn pair of glasses. "Looks like a big dragon to me."
"No, that's Slasher. What is she doing?"
"You want me to pull over?"
She nodded vigorously, careful not to bump her nose into the glass.
"You do not understand, small-brained predator. I am holding this fox's life in my hands. If you-"
Slasher cut Mecha off. "Someone's coming."
Mecha looked up and saw the ugliest, most beat-up excuse for a pickup truck he'd ever known pull into the parking lot. "Don't tell me that's what constitutes this town's police force. After I'm done with you I ought to put them out of their misery!"
He had to raise his voice, so as to be heard over the engine. Then it stopped, and an aged rabbit hopped out from the driver's side.
"Hi, Destro!" He waved. "Got some friends over, I see."
"Whoever you are, you'd better run," Slasher breathed. "This is an assassin robot, and he's extremely dangerous."
"He's the one who attacked me at the rest--" Destro bit back a cry of pain, as Metal Sonic tightened his grip. He didn't let up until a few seconds after Destro had stopped talking.
"Well, hi there, assassin robot!" The rabbit strode up to him, smiling, and offered his hand. "Name's Robert. I run a towing business and salvage yard here in town."
Mecha just stared at him, disbelieving. "I ... see."
Robert withdrew his hand, but the smile was still there. "You're with that airfield over yonder," he indicated the direction with a sweep of his hand, "aren't you?"
Metal Sonic's red, electronic eyes seemed to become sharper. "None of your business."
"And you've been wanting to take Destro back with you. Am I right?"
A large bead of sweat was forming on Slasher's neck, as she tried to hold perfectly still and keep quiet. Destro, for his part, was surprised at how calm he felt.
Mecha was just annoyed. "Yes."
He seemed to think about that for a moment, as if considering whether or not it mattered if he told him. "Chaos field research," he finally said.
"Chaos fields? Oh." Robert scratched at his head. "Yeah, that's right, he was going to train me in them. Destro, I mean."
Mecha's eyes flickered. "I beg your pardon?"
"That's what he said. I've got a pretty good-sized chaos field myself, I reckon. Can you tell?"
"Yes ... " Mecha concentrated on him for a moment. "I can tell." Robert's field reminded him of what it'd been like to be near Robo Knuckles, when he was just starting to develop his uncontrolled chaos field.
"I'll come with you instead, if you like." Robert shrugged. "Got nothing better to do."
"NO." Slasher almost jumped, and fluttered her wings to straighten them out again.
"And why not?" Mecha snarled.
"Because I know what you'll do to him." She narrowed her eyes, and looked over the top of his head at him.
If Metal Sonic was concerned, he didn't show it. He sounded more curious than anything else. "Why are you so willing to come?"
"Want to take a guess at how old I am?"
"Sixty-four," Mecha responded.
"Thirty. And the only bad habit I ever had was smoking."
"Another destructive field, then." Mecha's eyes glowed even brighter. "Perfect."
He tossed Destro aside and pushed Slasher away, to step up to Robert and take him by the arm. He moved his arm out of the way several times, nearly tripping the hedgehog up, before allowing it to be taken and smiling.
"Come, then," Mecha growled, and turned around to glare at Destro. "This one's been enough trouble."
"Destro, you can't let him do this." But Slasher sounded unsure of herself.
"Why not?" Robert asked. "I'm getting tired of seeing things break down. I want to do something good for a change."
"Can't you ... "
Her voice trailed off, and he shook his head. "It doesn't work that way."
Destro got up and dusted himself off, keeping an eye on Metal Sonic as he went to retrieve his sword. And Mecha picked Robert up with one hand, slinging him over his shoulder before igniting his engines. He hovered a few feet off the ground, glaring at the two freedom fighters who'd tried to oppose his work.
"Oh," he called out. "Before I forget ... " He turned around, and shot a laser beam from his arm into the pickup truck's hydrogen tank. An explosion blew out the underside of the flatbed and threw the truck forward, flipping it over to land on top of the cab.
"What the heck was that for?" Robert yelled.
"I cannot afford to have them pursuing me," Mecha snarled. "Better to leave them sorting through wreckage and tending to their wounded.
"That machine needed to be put out of its misery anyway," he mutterred.
Metal Sonic took off, flying off towards the airfield. He didn't fly in a straight line, though, on account of a random malfunction in his main engine. He kept bobbing and weaving as if he were drunk, and more than once he almost crashed into the ground.
Slasher didn't care. She wasn't watching him. She'd seen Samantha through the windshield, inside that truck. The raptor raced over to it, and began digging and prying at the side of the cab as the vehicle's underside burned.
Destro ran over to her. "Get help," Slasher told him.
He didn't need to be told twice.
* * *
There was were clanking noises out in the hallway of the Annihilator, as if a whole army of robots were approaching. The sound was muffled, as the walls and doors were all insulated, but it still scared Monty half to death.
"Just when I was starting to feel better, too ... " He waddled closer to the doorway, to try to hear what was going on.
The noise all of a sudden got louder, and turned into violent crashings and bangings. Then the door to the hallway opened, outside in the main room, and it became almost deafening for a second before it stopped altogether.
Monty couldn't see it, since his alcove only looked out on the back of the room with the radiation shield "swimming pool." But a whole pile of robts had broken down and collapsed into each other, and now they were blocking the door to the hallway. It tried to close on them a few times, before shorting out and breaking down itself.
There was silence in the room, for a moment. Then more footsteps, softer this time. And something else, too ... a chaos field, kaliedoscopic and brightly colored, bouncing and reflecting off all of the walls. It almost looked like a disco.
It got brighter, and the footsteps got closer to the room Monty's cage was in. By the time its owner had arrived it was so bright that he looked like a silhouette, against the crazily uncontrolled field of chaos. It didn't seem to be nearly as big as Robo Knux's, but it was all different colors and it hurt to look at. The chao was so glad they weren't feeding him much. He knew if they were he'd be violently sick.
"Hello," a voice said.
"Uh ... hi." Monty shielded his eyes.
"Nice place you've got here." The silhouette shifted around a little, like it was looking around for something. "So which one of these rooms is mine?" he asked.
"Dunno." The chao had to close his eyes and cover them, as he was starting to become sick anyway.
"Am I that ugly?" the silhouette asked.
Monty just shook his head vigorously, then instantly regretted it. "Can't tell," he mumbled.
"Ah." The silhouette was quiet after that.
Then it walked away, into another alcove off of the main room, and the colors dimmed down enough that Monty could see again. He shivered, and the frog outside splashed in its tank.
* * *
Metal Sonic stalked onto the Annihilator's bridge, ignoring the handful of robots on duty. He went over to the far ring of windows and leaned one elbow against them, as he looked out at his fleet. It looked like he could almost see Carrotseed, from where he was.
It would be so easy to just have it destroyed, he thought. It wouldn't even matter if anyone noticed. The Egg Fleet wasn't exactly stealth, after all. But Destro and Slasher were bound to survive. And that would defeat the purpose.
He realized that he didn't want to launch his fleet yet. This day had been very unsatisfying, and he just wanted to sulk.
But he'd already given the order, and even now the engines were starting up. Down in the airfield robots were running to their places, doing last-minute inspections, climbing into cockpits. Most of the work had already been done though, he knew. They'd all be airborne within the half-hour.
Mecha drummed his metal fingers on the window, watching it all and losing track of time. When the Annihilator started to rise from the tarmac he stepped back a bit, and began pacing the bridge slowly.
He already knew that that hated hedgehog was going to interfere. That was a given. But even with this massive force on Mecha's side, he wasn't sure how the battle was going to turn out. The other hedgehog was simply uncanny, in his power to wreak so much havoc.
And yet, when Mecha had become him, he hadn't really felt any different.
Maybe that was why he was feeling so dissatisfied, he thought.
The horizon was slipping away beneath the front of the craft. Metal Sonic went to the side of the bridge, and pressed a button on one of the consoles to send a transmission to Mekion.
* * *
All around Metrocard, robots hesitated and stood still, waiting for further orders. The Mobians took advantage of this and smashed them where they stood, knowing that they were fighting for their lives. But the invasion had been interrupted, and slowly but surely, the tide of battle turned against the invaders.
Mekion, Rouge and Omega saw the enemy falling, and Mekion and Rouge knew their task was over. When Omega wasn't paying attention to them, they grabbed him and teleported back to Rio Del Fuego.
They appeared in a vacant lot full of dead weeds. Omega was knocked out for a few seconds, then rebooted and looked around. "You pulled me from the battle!" he snarled. "Why did you do that? I told you I wished to fight to the death!"
"You're more useful alive," said Rouge. "Come on, Omega." They started to walk off, then realized Mekion wasn't following. Rouge looked back. "Shadow?"
He waved a hand. "Receiving transmission. Wait a moment."
A second later the download completed, and his Master's voice said in his head, "Greetings, Mekion. My master plan is in motion. To avoid harm, come to the fleet this evening. You may bring your companions if you wish. You will have to lock them up, but they will not die, as they will if they remain on the mainland." He paused, as if considering his words. "You are ordered to come to the fleet no later than 2000 hours, or you will die. Metal Sonic out."
Mekion pondered this transmission, ignoring the fear that lanced through Shadow. What was his Master planning to do? Mekion had never been privy to Metal Sonic's secret plans. He looked at Rouge and Omega and calculated the worth of their lives. Omega had saved Mekion during battle, and Mekion owed him for that. And Rouge ... Mekion envisioned watching her die, and decided that he would miss her. She was worth saving, if only to be held prisoner on the Annihilator.
He walked toward Rouge and Omega and realized he was tired. Fuel levels were low. "I am hungry," he told Rouge.
She gave him a scornful, pitying look. "If you would only eat regularly...! All right, come on. You too, Omega. We'll get some fuel for all of us."
* * *
Big, Amy and Cream ran through the casino, dodging through crowds of people and slot machines. The black hedgehog was ahead of them, slipping through the casino like a fish through water, without a ripple. His pursuers bumped into people, lost track of him over and over, and tripped over corners and steps. But when they thought he was gone, they saw him standing in plain sight, waiting for them.
"Cream," said Amy, "it's like he wants us to follow him."
"Then let's follow him!" exclaimed Cream. "Maybe he'll lead us to Monty and Froggy!"
"Or not," said Amy.
Suddenly a bear in a security guard uniform blocked their way. "Hey you kids!" he snarled. "You're not supposed to be in here!"
Cream and Amy looked at each other and Big. "Um, we're lost," said Amy. "We were trying to find the way out."
"Allow me to escort you," said the guard, and ushered them through the casino to the front doors. As they walked, the three peered around for the black hedgehog, but he was gone. Amy glanced at Cream, who was drooping with disappointment.
The guard deposited them on the sidewalk. "Use the waterpark entrance, kids. Minors aren't allowed inside casinos."
He left, and Cream looked at Big. "What do we do, Mr. Big?"
"Maybe the hedgehog will come out," said Big. "We could wait for him."
"He might leave through the waterpark," said Amy. "What's he doing here, anyway?"
"Probably kidnapping more chao," said Cream, her chaos field blazing around her and ruffling their fur. "I wish Daddy was here! He'd catch that guy so fast!"
"Look!" gasped Amy. "There he is!" She pointed up the street to the waterpark entrance, where the black hedgehog was just stepping out. He looked at them, smiled, then turned and walked away. Amy, Cream and Big were after him at once.
* * *
Knuckles stood in the shade cast by the Egg Albatross and watched Sonic run around and around the park's perimeter. The park doubled as a soccer field, so the trees were sparse and ringed the park--there was nothing else for five acres but grass.
Tails and Sally were off at a distance, talking in low voices and watching Sonic. Sonic was running off his attack of nerves, and Knuckles marvelled at his energy. Of course, Sonic ate more than any of them, so maybe that helped explain it. Around and around he went, fifteen laps, sixteen, seventeen. Knuckles shook his head. Maybe Sonic should lay off the sugar. He sure didn't act like he'd been in battle all morning.
Smoke rose to the north of them, but here it was quiet. The houses were few, with large lots, and there were plenty of trees. Knuckles liked it--quiet and lonely.
His communicator buzzed. Knuckles had forgotten all about it. He unclipped it from his belt and flicked it on. "Yeah?"
"Hey Knux," came Vector's voice. "This is Vector. Is there really some kind of invasion going on in Metrocard?"
"Yep," said Knuckles. "Spearheaded by Robotnik. We've just taken down his command center."
"No kidding!" There was a pause as Vector related this in the background. "Here I thought the news was nuts. They're sending GUN troops down there and everything."
"Good," said Knuckles. "It's going better down here, but we're not out of the woods yet."
"Were you in the fighting?"
"Yep. And Sonic, and Tails, and Sally. Just like old times."
There was a pause, and Vector lowered his voice. "Hey Knux ... you know that client of ours?"
"The mystery dude? Yeah."
"Um, he's given us instructions to ... well ... rent a plane and fly out to someplace in the middle of the ocean. I think it's some base of Robotnik's. Do you guys have room for us in the Cyclone?"
"No," said Knuckles. "Renting a plane? Is he sending you to an island?"
"I checked a map. No islands."
Knuckles looked up at the Albatross. He gazed at it for a moment, then walked to the rear and inspected the tailfin. It hadn't burned much, and the envelope was scorched, but not punctured. There was plenty of room on board the gondola. "Hey Vector," said Knuckles. "Ever travel by blimp?"
* * *
Rouge carried a can of fuel in one hand and a paper bag in the other, and stepped off the elevator into her apartment. Omega and Mekion were at opposite ends of the room, ignoring each other. They looked up as she entered.
"There," she said, setting her load on a coffee table. "Omega, here's the liquid fuel you asked for, and don't you dare get any on my carpet."
He took it without a word and opened a panel on his chest. He extracted a plastic tube, fed it into the gas can, and activated a pump.
As Omega refueled, Mekion walked up and took the paper bag. Inside were paper-wrapped sandwiches. He extracted one and ate it slowly, with dignity, as if eating was beneath him, but he condescended to do it anyway. Rouge ate a sandwich of her own, watching Mekion with amusement. "Why don't you ever eat?"
He shrugged. "I do not permit Shadow any luxuries. One power he has over me is that he controls fueling, so I do not let him fuel up as often as he would like, to keep him in submission."
"You can't help getting hungry," said Rouge. "If you eat when you're hungry, you'll actually be stronger."
"So they say," said Mekion, glowering. "But I do not want Shadow to be stronger. He can override my control if he is strong, and I do not want that."
"You need to work with Shadow, not against him," said Rouge, licking her fingers. "You make up the same person."
Mekion looked away and didn't answer. He unwrapped another sandwich and ate it, then looked at the last sandwich. Rouge waved a hand. "Take it. I got it for you." Mekion hesitated, then took it and ate it, too. Then he sank down on the couch with a sigh.
Rouge had never heard anything so natural as a contented sigh from Mekion, and wondered how much of Mekion was Shadow, merely copied to silicon.
The real reason for Mekion's fury at Shadow was because Shadow was feeling guilty. Guilt! Shadow had never felt it before. His memory was empty, reaching back to the Amile canyon and no further. He knew from Mekion's records that things had happened before that, but he couldn't remember them. He had been with Rouge and Omega his entire memory. Despite their animosity toward each other, they were all he knew, his companions through battle and pain.
This resulted in something Mekion had not expected--Shadow had grown to tolerate, and even like them. Sure, he still wanted to destroy Omega, and sometimes he considered spindashing Rouge just to shut her up, but on the whole he liked being around them, talking and interacting.
And now he had to take them to the Egg Fleet and imprison them. Shadow chafed against the idea, but he had to do it for their own protection. The Master had said that if he left them behind, they would die. Staying on the mainland himself was out of the question; the Master had given an order, and Shadow and Mekion had to obey. Total obedience was built into Mekion, and conditioned into Shadow. He had disobeyed once, and the sheer pain was so great that Mekion's record of it was distorted.
Thus he was already on his way to the fleet in his mind. Taking Rouge and Omega meant imprisoning them, and they wouldn't understand. They would think he was handing them over to his Master for punishment, and the image of their hurt, vengeful eyes watching him from behind bars was unbearable. Mekion insisted that this course of action was necessary, and Shadow kept waffling; he wanted to do it, and then he didn't want to do it.
Mekion was still chewing out Shadow as he sat on the couch. But Mekion could not erase the sensation of satisfaction that came from a full stomach, and the accompanying sleepiness. The food had made Shadow able to resist Mekion a little, so he merely listened and let himself doze, even as Mekion scolded him for sleeping.
Rouge watched Shadow, and was glad that he was able to sit still. She didn't know that sitting still was Shadow's way of rebelling against Mekion. It wouldn't last long, but it was another round of the constant battle between robot and organic.
Rouge cleaned up the sandwich wrappers and checked to make sure Omega had not dripped fuel on the carpet. Omega was being careful, and was rolling the fuel hose back into its compartment. He gave no sign that he had been listening to Mekion berate Shadow, and was piecing together the contents of the transmission. But instead of being afraid or upset, Omega was delighted. Enemy airships! The battle of a lifetime! Breaking out of a prison cell was no problem when one had as many weapons as he did, and then--the mother of all fights! Surely he would take 100% damage from THAT.
Shadow stood up. He paced from window to window, fighting his guilt and Mekion. As he looked down at the street below, he saw a black hedgehog run into sight and pause, looking over his shoulder. Mekion gripped the windowsill with both hands. Red stripes. Hoverskates. Sarcastic expression. Shadow.
"But I am Shadow!" Mekion and Shadow protested together. "That's just ... just some faker!"
"Rouge," he whispered. "Come here, quick."
Rouge hurried up, and looked down at the black hedgehog. She gasped and looked at Mekion, then the other black hedgehog. "Who is that?"
"I don't know," whispered Mekion, "but I'm going to find out." He gripped his emerald and teleported. Rouge and Omega made for the elevator.
* * *
Amy, Cream and Big were panting and infuriated. The black hedgehog was playing with them--he let them draw close, then sprinted away with blinding speed. It was like chasing a sadistic Sonic. He was leading them toward the outskirts of the city, taunting them with his body language.
It frightened Amy--what if he decided to attack them where nobody could help them? Oh, if only Sonic was here! Amy was the only one of the three without a grudge against the hedgehog--Cream and Big both had a score to settle.
They rounded the corner of a hotel and casino, and before them the street opened out into a golf course bordering the beach. Sitting in the middle of the green was the same jet the hedgehog had escaped in before. He was jogging toward it, smiling over his shoulder.
"Oh, he's getting away again!" cried Cream.
There was a flash of light, and another black hedgehog materialized and spindashed the first. They tumbled over and over on the grass, and it was impossible to tell them apart. Then one of them was flat on the ground with the other pinning him. The one on top was half robot.
"Look, it's Shadow!" said Amy. "And ... another Shadow! What's going on?"
The three hurried up to the battling pair. Mekion was hitting the black hedgehog in the face, and the hedgehog had his hands around Mekion's neck, trying to choke him. However, Mekion's neck was half metal, and strangulation was very difficult.
"Who are you?" Mekion hissed between blows. "Why do you look like me? Answer me, faker!"
The hedgehog only snarled and didn't answer. He arched and twisted, throwing Mekion off him, and scrambled toward the jet. Mekion spindashed again and knocked him flat.
Amy heard footsteps and turned to see Rouge and Omega running toward them. Amy shrank against Big. Cream saw their enemies and shrank against Big's other side. Big saw the bat and robot and muttered, "Uh oh."
Rouge and Omega ran right past them. Rouge jumped on the strange hedgehog and helped Mekion hold him down, for the hedgehog was strong and fighting in near-panic. Omega stood by and watched. Over the network he could hear Mekion saying, "What is your name?"
Another, unfamilier voice hissed, "Will you STOP it already?"
Mekion froze, staring down at the black hedgehog. The black hedgehog was snarling up at him, teeth bared.
"M-Master?" Mekion said through the network.
The black hedgehog rolled his eyes. "Your idiocy would be amusing under any other circumstances, but I'll have you know that you are HURTING me."
Mekion leaped backwards as if he had been electrocuted, grabbing Rouge and pulling her away. "Release him!" Mekion whispered frantically. "Leave him alone!"
Rouge stared at Mekion, shaking her head. The black hedgehog sprang to his feet, smirking. Through the network he said, "I would reveal myself for the sake of frightening them, but your friend Omega would recognize me. Do with the civilians what you want, for I have already gathered their data." Mecha climbed into the jet, ignited the engines and took off.
As it lifted off, Mekion felt a small body collide with his own. He looked down to see Cream hitting and kicking him, screaming, "You let him get away! You let him get away and he has Monty! You're so mean, I hate you!"
Her blows were too weak to hurt him, and Mekion only became annoyed. He caught one wrist and held her away from him. "I know where he is going," he whispered. "Do I know you?"
"We met them in the jungle," said Rouge, keeping an eye on Amy and Big. "A bunch of harmless brats."
Mekion looked at Cream, who was wilting in his iron grasp, tears filling her eyes. "You're hurting me," she whispered. He released her, and she ran back to Amy and Big.
Without knowing why, Mekion followed her and stood looking at Amy, Cream and Big. They all stared at him, remembering their fight in the jungle and wondering if he was going to take revenge. Rouge walked up beside him and glared at them. "You kids have no idea what you're gotten yourselves into. Get out of here."
They backed away, but Mekion held up a hand. "Wait!"
They waited, looking at him.
Mekion was studying Amy. He had seen her before somewhere. Before he was Mekion. A memory was struggling to revive inside of Shadow's blank mind. A dark room with blue light shining in the windows. Three girls, one of them hurt. This same pink hedgehog arguing with him.
Then with a hideous flash-forward he remembered the biolizard, and his entire soul cringed at the memory of the terror and the stench. His past. This hedgehog was a key to his past.
And she would be dead by this time tomorrow.
His eyes moved over Big, who he didn't know, then settled on Cream. Her eyes were filled with tears. She met his gaze for a few seconds, then hid her face against Big's fur. She reminded him of something else, some memory even further back--another girl with tears in her eyes ...
"Maria," he whispered. Rouge jumped and looked at him. She had not heard him mention Maria since she had pulled him from the pod. Mekion was staring straight ahead with a blank expression, his attention focused inward.
"Is he all right?" Amy asked.
"Yes," said Rouge, although she wasn't sure. "He gets like this sometimes. Omega, what's he doing?"
"Thinking," said Omega. "I can't catch it--Shadow is the one thinking, not Mekion."
Mekion lifted his head. "We must leave this place. I am taking all of you." He took Cream's hand, and Rouge said, "You heard him. Join hands." But she was watching Mekion, wondering what he was doing. Where was he taking them this time? And why bring these kids?
When they had all joined hands, Mekion lifted his emerald and whispered, "Chaos relocate!" The power blazed through him, steamrolling the fragile memories he had just recovered as he transported them all to the Egg Fleet.
Or, more specifically, a prison cell on the Annihilator. They appeared in a small steel room with a barred door. Mekion released their hands and looked at Rouge, forgetting about Amy and Cream at once. "I'm sorry," he whispered, pulling the earpiece out of his ear, and dropping it and the watch at Rouge's feet. Then he teleported away in another flash of light.
Rouge rushed to the bars and looked out. A cellblock. "He's put us in prison somewhere!" she exclaimed.
"Correction," said Omega. "We are in a holding cell on the Annihilator, flagship of the Egg Fleet."
"We're in Robotnik's jail?" Amy shrieked. "Oh no, oh no, oh no!"
"Calm down," snapped Rouge. "Mekion wouldn't have brought us here without a reason. Right?" she added, looking at Omega.
"I don't know," said Omega. "I am under the impression that he brought us here to protect us."
"Protect us?" said Cream, clinging to Amy and Big. "How does being in jail protect us?"
Rouge looked around at all of them, and the pieces fell into place. "Oh my gosh," she whispered. "Robotnik is attacking the human colonies."
* * *
Metal Sonic looked up as Mekion materialized in the doorway of the bridge. "Master," said Mekion, limping forward with his robot eye flickering. He knelt and said, "I have come, following your instructions. And I apologize for assaulting you ... I am the lowest of worms ..."
Metal Sonic waved a hand. "It only proves that my disguise was completely effective. I did not intend to cross your path, however, and your reaction is understandable. You are forgiven. For now."
Mekion rose to his feet, looking relieved and pentient.
"I detected a large chaos surge," Metal Sonic added. "How many did you bring?"
"Five others. Rouge, Omega, and three civilians."
Metal Sonic frowned. "You brought those civilians? Why? I told you I had already gathered their data."
Mekion opened his mouth, then paused. "I don't know," he said. "I am certain I had a reason."
"Nevermind then," said Metal Sonic. "We will deal with them later. I want you to take command of the Black Fleet. Issue the pilots their orders and see that they stay just starboard of Blue Fleet."
"Yes Master." Mekion stepped up to a console and peered at the screens as Metal Sonic manned the other set of consoles.
There was silence in the room, but the network frequencies were alive with information; ships reporting in, ships launching, ships in holding patterns. Mekion launched Black Fleet and kept it to the right of Blue Fleet. The Annihilator was already airborne, and was climbing to higher and higher altitudes. The fleet was rising from the airbase like swarms of locusts, darkening the sky with their numbers.
There were the aircraft carriers filled with drone jets. There were bombers and troop transports, and gunships for defense. There were frigates and destroyers, all patterned after sharks, sawfish and birds of prey. Once they were airborne, Mekion glanced out the window and the sight took his breath away. Thousands upon thousands of airships, armed to the teeth, flying in squadrons above and below the Annihilator. It was overwhelming and yet beautiful. "Master," he whispered, "there are so many!"
"Yes," purred Metal Sonic. "The Egg Fleet has been eight years in the making. I have also gathered aircraft from other airbases. We will fall on the human colonies like a storm."
Mekion gazed at Metal Sonic. "The colonies?"
"Yes," said Metal Sonic. "The humans have the strength to resist invasion, as they showed during the biotic war. Mobians underestimate them, but I do not. My first blow will strike the colonies, and if one strikes hard enough the first time, it is unnecessary to strike again."
Mekion looked at his own squadron. Bombers.
Metal Sonic said quietly, "When I am through, future generations will not be sure there ever were human colonies."
* * *
Sonic and Sally were in the Cyclone, driving back to Rio Del Fuego. They had to travel by walker for a long time to escape the roadblocks and shattered pavement that the invasion force had left behind, but once they reached the highway beyond, they transformed the Cyclone to a car for faster travel. Their journey was a silent one.
Knuckles and Tails had stayed behind to figure out the Albatross's controls and fly it to the Rio Del Fuego airport, where the Chaotix planned to meet them. From there, they all planned to fly out and meet this mysterious Client. Whoever he was, he was working against Robotnik, and the Freedom Fighters wanted to meet this ally of theirs.
Sonic was quiet because once the shock of 'killing' Robotnik had worn off, he was mentally exhausted. He planned to sleep for several hours when they reached the UA building.
Sally was quiet because she was pondering the things Tails had told her. As deadly as the Metrocard sneak-attack had been, it looked more and more like a distraction. A distraction not only for them, but for everyone in the region. The human leaders did not want a human attacking Mobians, while there was a conference in progress to prevent that very thing. They had sent troops and supplies to help. The eyes of all the colonies would be on Rio Del Fuego and Metrocard for the next several weeks.
So where was the real Robotnik? That was the question that frightened Sally. Had he masterminded this whole scheme in order to strike unnoticed? But where would he strike, and how? She thought of the email Tails had received, and how it dared them to stop Robotnik in four days. Today was Thursday, the third day. So tomorrow, or maybe the day after, Robotnik would strike.
They crossed the border into the Rio Del Fuego limits, and Sonic said, "How long will it take that blimp to get here?"
"An hour or so," said Sally. "I'm going to see if GUN has spotted any troop movements that look suspicious. We're being distracted from noticing something."
"Yeah," said Sonic grimly. "A robot Robotnik. I can't believe I fell for it. Maybe Mecha's sneaking into the city with a nuke."
"Maybe." Sally thumbed her lower lip, gazing into the distance. "The conference won't be over until Tuesday. Striking Rio Del Fuego would kill most of West Mobius's leaders."
"Tails talked about assassins," said Sonic, glancing back at her with a grin. "I'd hate it if he was right."
"Not assassins," said Sally. "War. The robots in Metrocard were armored, but we've seen that Robotnik has tougher ones. Remember the ones that fought the biotics?"
"What's your point?"
"Sonic, the baddest of the bad are going to attack here. Tomorrow."
Sonic was quiet a moment. "What do we do?"
Sally clenched a fist. "We find out about it and stop it the way we did in Metrocard."
"That's my Sal," said Sonic. "Fight 'em to the end!"
They pulled onto their street and parked in the UA parking lot. As they climbed out, Sonic said, "I'm gonna go crash for a while. Come get me when the blimp gets here."
"All right," said Sally. "I'm going to talk to GUN's head office. Maybe they know something."
The two parted ways in the lobby. Sally was glad that Sonic was resting--he had the peaked look that he received from overtaxing himself. A nap would do him good, and help him get over the shock of "killing" someone. She had never seen Sonic fall apart, but she understood the process leading up to it. A shock that severe would unhinge anyone.
Sally found the GUN officer currently on duty at the front desk. "Could I have the number of your head office, please?"
"What for?" The human eyed her warily.
"It involves the attack on Metrocard," said Sally. "I may have some additional information."
The man picked up a phone, pressed a button and handed it to her. "Hello, Governmental United Navy, how may I help you?" said a pleasant female voice.
"Yes," said Sally, "I am Princess Sally Acorn, and I have some information on the Metrocard invasion."
"One moment, please." Some kind of garbled music played through the receiver for a few seconds, then a male voice said, "Hello, Commander Neil Southgo speaking."
Sally repeated her name and title, then explained about finding out about the invasion before it began. She voiced her concern that it was a distraction, and asked if the Commander had any reports of other suspicious troop movements.
The Commander was silent for a long moment, digesting all this. Then he said, "We have no reports of another attack at this time. Do you have any proof of another attack?"
"No," said Sally. "But the invasion was led by a robot duplicate of Robotnik, and I find that very fishy. Robotnik leads his attacks personally."
"Hmm." Neil was quiet a few seconds. "All right, I'll get my men on it. We're very busy with the Metrocard business."
"I understand," said Sally. "Nothing may come of it, but I had to do something."
"Thank you, Ms. Acorn. I'll be in touch if we find anything."
Sally hung up and exhaled. She had set the ball rolling now, and she hoped that she was only making mountains out of molehills. An attack on the colonies could be disastrous, for they had sent their troops to Metrocard and left themselves unprotected.
She turned around and came face to face with Mortho and Jik, the Mobitropolis senators. "Oh, hello," she said, startled. "I didn't hear you walk up."
"Princess, please come with us," said Mortho. He took her elbow and guided her into a room adjoining the lecture hall.
"We need to speak with you," added Jik as he closed the door.
Sally checked her watch. "Oh great, I give the opening lecture tomorrow, don't I? Could we reschedule it?"
"Miss Acorn," said Mortho, clasping his mouse-hands in front of him, "you attended none of today's meetings. People are beginning to talk."
"I know, I'm sorry," said Sally.
Jik adjusted his glasses. "You brought Sonic, and he is a huge distraction for you. He constantly pulls you from your duties."
"I'm sorry," Sally repeated, looking at their cold faces. What were they getting at? "But we were ... detained in Metrocard, and that was nobody's fault."
"You would not have been there if not for him," said Mortho. "Your constant attention to Sonic is detracting from your political duties. These meetings are vital to creating a foundation for future government, and you are ignoring them!"
Sally felt her temper flare, and became as cold as they were. "I've hardly spent any time with Sonic this week. Today was a diversion. I've attended all but two of the meetings, and the other delegates attended far less than that. What else would you have me do?"
Mortho didn't answer for a moment, gazing at her. Then he said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand. Either you abandon this troublesome relationship, or we will revoke your title."
"You can't do that," said Sally, her temper rising higher.
"Oh, we can," said Jik. "The monarchy is on the point of being dissolved. Power lies with us and with the people. Either you ride the wave into the new government, or you are left behind as a relic of the old regime."
"This is blackmail," said Sally, beginning to tremble with anger. "You can't dictate how I govern my private affairs."
"We are your peers," said Mortho. "Continuing this relationship with that hedgehog will ruin your political career and ours. He has no tact and is always mixing in delicate political affairs with the grace of a cement truck. He will damage our whole party. Either he goes, or you go. But riding the fence can't continue forever, not after the Metrocard business."
Sally's mouth worked, and she knew that if she made a decision now, while angry, she would regret it later. "I need to think about this."
"Take your time, princess," said Jik, opening the door. "You have until Tuesday."
Sally crossed the lobby at a near run and mounted the stairs. Halfway up her rage began to give way to a sick shock. How could they give her such an ultimatum? Her steps slowed, and she reached her room with dragging feet. Sonic or her career. So it had come to the wire at last. A choice was needed.
She entered her room and sat on her bed, staring at the wall. She had been a political leader for years, since Knothole. She had devoted many hours of her life to it, following her career path, attending meetings and conferences hither and yon. Her head told her that she should stick to what she knew. The safe course was dumping Sonic and staying in the cage with the other talking heads.
But her heart wanted to stay with Sonic. The idea of leaving him awakened an agonized scream somewhere inside her. They had been friends forever, and lately his clumsy courtship had amused her to no end. Telling him that she was swapping him for a cushy political career would destroy him. And did she really want to swap him? Could she honestly live without him?
Back and forth she went, weighing her position against her love. A choice meant being wrung in two. Staying with Sonic meant giving up everything she had worked for all those years. But going with her career meant no more Sonic, ever. Oh, she might knight him somewhere down the road, but they wouldn't be friends anymore. Something had to be sacrificed, and she seesawed between the two, unable to choose.
Sally pulled the chaos emerald out of her vest pocket and held it in both hands. She felt its resonance in tune with her nature, and wished it could make the choice for her. She thought of everything that had happened over the week, and how the best parts had been when she was with Sonic. When he was gone, she floundered along on her own, becoming stuck in the mire of her own thoughts. Sonic drew her out of herself and the deadly depression that grew on her when she worked too much. She needed him. But she liked being a politician. She wanted to keep playing the game and changing the world. She couldn't give up that power.
Sally looked at the clock and saw that it was four o'clock. Good grief, she had been here an hour! She pulled out her communicator and tuned it to Knuckles's frequency. She clicked it on and it connected. "Knuckles?"
"Hi Sally. We're about ten minutes from landing."
"Good. Do you want me to bring dinner so we can eat on the way?"
"That'd be great. Tails and I were wondering how we'd have time to eat anything. There's not a scrap of food on the Albatross, which is weird for Robotnik."
"It wasn't Robotnik."
"I know. See you in a few."
Sally hung up, stuck the chaos emerald back in her pocket, and knocked on Sonic's door. There was no response. She listened and heard him snoring. She knocked again, louder. "Sonic Hedgehog, get up!"
No more bossing him around or exchanging snappy insults. She couldn't tell him about the ultimatum, or he would march downstairs and terrorize Mortho and Jik, and she didn't need that.
"I'm up, I'm up," he called. A few minutes later he emerged from his room, yawning. "Are they here?"
"About ten minutes," said Sally. "I told them I'd pick up dinner, and we'd eat on the Albatross." Seeing him brought home the awfulness of her choice, but she masked her inner turmoil with the self-control she had learned over the years.
"Great idea!" Sonic's ears pricked up. "Let's see, that's ... eight people, counting the Chaotix. That's a lotta food."
"You count as nine," said Sally. "You eat as much as two normal people."
"Dig the metabolism," said Sonic. "Let's go! I'm starved."
* * *
The Chaotix arrived at the airport with their bobsled loaded with the Client's materials, and saw the Albatross at once. "Oh wow!" exclaimed Charmy. "We get to ride in that?"
"It looks a lot like that other ship in the Amile canyon," said Vector, squinting. "Hand me the chemical box, Espio."
They each took an item--the chemicals, the machine, the tube and the battery--and carried them across the tarmac to the blimp, which was tethered by the nose to a tall pole. Tails and Knuckles were waiting for them, and helped load the equipment.
"What is this stuff?" asked Tails, taking the battery and setting it carefully in a wall compartment.
"Stuff the Client ordered," said Vector. "Be careful--we had to run over hill and dale to find these things."
"I hope he paid in advance," said Knuckles, lifting the machine's box with a grunt.
"Payment on delivery," said Mighty. "And we're making sure that he pays."
As they packed everything away and the Chaotix inspected the read compartments, Sonic and Sally drove up in the Cyclone. "Hey Tails!" Sonic yelled. "Are we taking the Cyclone?"
"I'd like to!" called Tails. "Did you bring food?"
"Yep!" Sonic and Sally held up plastic bags containing boxes and paper-wrapped objects that smelled heavenly. The group in the Albatross jumped out and mobbed them, then they carried everything up into the blimp to eat.
"We've got a whole day to fly," said Espio, opening a box and inhaling the steam from rice and vegetables. "Man, this smells good! What is it?"
"Ethnic human cuisine," said Sally. "I've had it before and thought you guys might like it." There were several kinds of dishes, and they passed them around and sampled them all.
Espio remembered what he had been saying. "Oh yeah, the Client needs this stuff by Friday night at the latest. So if this thing flies really slow, it doesn't matter."
"Took ages to fly up here," said Knuckles. "Tails can fly ahead and see where we're going. Maybe it's an uncharted island and this guy is stranded there."
"With a radio and tons of money?" said Vector. "Naw."
"It's probably a boat," said Sonic. "Maybe he's on some kind of yacht or an oil drilling rig."
"That's more likely," said Tails. "Maybe I shouldn't take the Cyclone after all. I'd hate to have to bail out in the ocean."
Everyone winced. They knew how expensive the Cyclone was, due to its upgrades. "Yeah, better leave it here," said Sally. "It'll be okay for a day or so."
"Unless somebody attacks the colonies," muttered Sonic. When the Chaotix looked questioning, Sonic explained the distraction theory.
They looked at each other in dismay. "That sounds plausible," said Vector. "I don't like it."
"An attack could come from anywhere," said Sally. "North, south, east or west. I'm half-afraid your Client is involved somehow, and you've been working against the colonies this whole time."
"The thought had crossed my mind," said Vector. "The Client swears up and down that he's not, but who knows?"
"I have my emerald if something goes wrong," said Sonic. "We'll just teleport back. We might need weapons for you guys, though."
"Say no more," said Mighty. "I already covered it." He pointed to a cloth bundle he had stowed in the corner. "Large caliber automatics, specifically for punching through robots."
"You guys are really on the ball," said Knuckles, grinning.
The Chaotix looked smug. "You have to be in this business," said Espio.
They finished eating and prepared for takeoff. Knuckles and Tails rook command of the controls, and everyone else entered the rear compartment. It had been refitted to accommodate the weapons and armor Robotnik had needed for warmaking, but there was space to sit on the floor between the ammunition housings. This they did, and listened as the engines fired up. Then the lines were cast off and they were rising into the air. Everyone looked out the windows as the airport fell away, and Rio Del Fuego spread out below them.
Vector rose and entered the cockpit. "Here's the directions," he said, handing a crumpled paper to Tails. "We fly west from Rio Del Fuego and turn northwest after two hours."
Tails read the directions, then consulted a map. "Okay, I can follow this. I wish this thing had computers!"
"He had laptop computers in here," said Knuckles. "I guess a complete upgrade was too expensive."
"Especially for a robot decoy," said Tails, frowning. "This whole situation smells like a trap." Knuckles and Vector nodded without speaking. Tails shook his head. "At least Sonic can teleport us out."
"Hopefully he won't have to," said Knuckles. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have someone at home to call."
* * *
Rouge knelt in front of the cell door and examined the lock, lockpick in hand. It was an electronic lock, but she had dealt with them before. She pulled out a magnigen and aimed it at the lock, then went to work with the lockpick.
Omega watched her. "I could blow it apart if you wish."
"No," said Rouge. "Someone would hear."
Amy and Cream sat at the back of the cell with Big, frightened and silent for once. Big appeared unconcerned about their situation, and fiddled with his fishing pole, rewinding line on the reel. Amy watched Rouge and Omega and whispered, "Now I know how Sonic felt when he was in jail that time."
"Do you think he'll come save us?" asked Cream.
"He doesn't know where we are," said Amy. "He thinks we're at Ocean Palace."
"I wish we had stayed there," said Cream, pulling her ears around her. "I think all black hedgehogs are bad."
"Shadow wasn't, really," said Amy. "Or he didn't used to be. But he must work for Robotnik now." Amy wasn't afraid of Shadow--she never feared males of her species--but Rouge and Omega frightened her. They might do anything--report them or have them robotized. Especially Rouge, who seemed so heartless.
The door lock snapped open, and the door swung outward. Rouge stuck her head out and looked up and down the hall. Then she stepped out, beckoning to the rest of them. "Come on," she said. "Omega and I are going to find Mekion. You three can go get yourselves killed or try to escape, I don't care. But don't follow us."
"Yes ma'am," said Amy.
Rouge and Omega strode down the cellblock, and the others ambled behind them, for there was nowhere else to go. All the other cells were full of canisters covered in buttons and wires, and Amy wondered why. Weren't the cells meant for prisoners?
Rouge picked the lock of the door at the end, then Rouge and Omega bolted off down the hallway beyond. Amy gazed after them. "Come on," she said. "We can't follow them, so we'll go the other way. Maybe we can get off this ship."
"I hope so," said Cream, ears drooping. "I just want to go home."
* * *
Rouge's mind was in a turmoil. Mekion had betrayed them all. He hand brought them here as an offering to his Master, and was probably leading the attack on the colonies. Mekion was responsible--not Shadow, she reminded herself. But anymore, when Shadow was in control, he acted the same as Mekion. They were harder to tell apart, and he was becoming cold and ruthless. She had no idea how often he had been in touch with Metal Sonic, and of how that had affected him. Part of her was repulsed and incensed, but another part of her clapped its hands in glee. Someone as amoral as herself! Shadow was even darker than she had first thought.
"Omega," she said, "which way to the bridge?"
He paused and picked up a floorplan from the central computer. "This way," he said, striding ahead. "We are on floor two, and the bridge is on floor twenty."
"Twenty?" said Rouge. "This ship is that big?"
"The Annihilator is the flagship of the Egg Fleet," said Omega. "It contains repair facilities and support for all the ships, and is necessarily the biggest."
They walked in silence, listening for enemies or some sign that they had been spotted. So far all was quiet, except for a deep hum that vibrated through the white plastic walls and floor, and a vague sense of motion.
After half an hour they found a staircase, and followed it to the next floor. At the top was a tiny window, and Rouge peered out. The sun was sinking, and silhouetted against the red and gold sky were the black shapes of the fleet. Hundreds of them. Rouge peered around--the fleet stretched for miles in every direction, grouped into orderly ranks. Her stomach turned over. She had to warn the colonies--but even with warning, how could they withstand an attack of this magnitude? There was enough firepower here to take over all of West Mobius!
Or was that the plan?
"Hurry, Omega," she said, and they ran in the direction of the next staircase.
* * *
Time passed. The Albatross nosed out into the sunset at a slow, steady pace. The Egg Fleet rushed eastward with the sun gilding its wings, thirsting for battle and destruction. Rouge and Omega climbed stairs on one side of the ship, and Amy, Cream and Big climbed stairs on the other side. The Freedom Fighters and Chaotix laid around the Albatross, unaware of the danger they were flying into, bored and growing nervous.
Sally's thoughts again turned to her decision, and she mulled over it in the corner of the passenger compartment. She held the violet chaos emerald, and watched Sonic and Espio play catch with the green emerald. Every time they caught it, they said a random word. "Fish."
"Hey, that was two words," said Espio. "Maybe we should play with two emeralds." He reached into his utility belt and produced the white emerald.
"Hey!" Sonic exclaimed. "Where'd you get that?"
"Found it," said Espio. "Shadow and Rouge had found it somewhere, and we swiped it from them."
"Shadow and Rouge?" said Sally, lifting her head. "When was this?"
Espio recounted the adventure at RedStar, embellishing his own parts. Sonic listened, looking envious. "You guys have all the fun."
"Wasn't it fun in Metrocard today?" asked Espio.
Sonic shrugged. "Not really. It was too much work. Right Sal?"
She nodded. "I've never considered war fun. But we won, and I heard that the casualty rate was surprisingly low."
"It was a distraction, I'm telling you," said Sonic. He took Sally's emerald, and he and Espio began team-juggling the three emeralds. For a while the air was full of flying, flashing gems, and Sally watched them and laughed, wondering in the back of her mind how she could give up Sonic's easy companionship. Then she wondered what she would do with herself if she lost her job.
The connecting door opened, and Charmy leaned in from the cockpit. "Hey you guys, come see this."
The three joined the others in the cockpit and peered out at the sky. The sunset had faded to a violet band along the horizon, and stars sprinkled the sky. But against the horizon was a mass of dark dots, all carrying running lights--red, green and yellow. Thousands of them.
"What is that?" said Sally, squinting.
"It's some kind of airfleet," said Tails. "Vector, call up your Client. I'd hate it if we're supposed to meet up with those suckers."
"Right." Vector clicked on the Client's com. "Uh, sir?"
"Yeah, we're enroute to the coordinates that you gave us. And there's this big ... airfleet. Are we in the right place?"
"If you're within sight of the fleet, then yes. I will now give you your final task."
The group exchanged uneasy glances, wondering if they were supposed to attack the fleet.
"Find Frigate 723 Falconwing. I am in cellblock three, cell five. Rescue me."
There was a long silence in the cockpit as everyone stared at the communicator. Then Sonic muttered, "Okay, this is a twist."
"You're a prisoner?" said Vector.
"Yes," said the Client. "Make sure you bring the parts I ordered--they're vital to our success in overthrowing the Egg Fleet."
"Egg Fleet?" gasped Sally. She snatched the communicator from Vector. "Hello, this is Princess Sally. Is the Egg Fleet Dr. Robotnik's?"
"Yes it is," said the Client. "Why?"
"What's its mission?"
"I'm not sure," said the Client. "I've been in solitary for a month. Which direction is it travelling?"
"East, toward the human colonies."
"Then that is probably its destination. You must warn them ... although there's not much they can do against the power of the Egg Fleet."
Sonic cocked his head. He had heard that phrasing somewhere before.
Sally looked at Tails. "Is there a radio in here?"
"There was," said Tails, "but somebody who will remain nameless smashed it."
Sally returned the com to Vector and turned to Sonic. "Sonic, can you teleport me back to Rio Del Fuego? I can warn them and help raise defenses."
"Sure thing, Sal," said Sonic. He lowered his voice and added, "This kind of fighting is beyond you anyway. Take the purple emerald--if the fleet gets through, use it. I know you can." Sally nodded as he handed it to her. Then he took his green emerald and said, "Be right back, guys."
Sonic and Sally teleported in a flash of light, reappearing in Sally's room in the UA building.
"Sonic, be careful out there," said Sally, standing back and looking at him.
Sonic already had the excited, crazy look he had when anticipating a battle. "Sure Sal," he said. "You know me--I'm always careful."
"Just don't come back in a box," said Sally. She didn't want him to go back out there, but the choice wasn't hers to make. "And look out for the others."
"I will, Sal," said Sonic, fingering his emerald. "The fleet's so huge that some might get here before we can take out whoever's in charge." He looked at his emerald. "I Chaos Saw this."
"You did?" said Sally. "How did it turn out?"
He met her eyes. "You know the chaos emeralds. They predict worse-case scenarios."
"Oh." Sally could imagine it. She looked at Sonic, wishing desperately that he could stay with her, and knowing he couldn't.
He returned her gaze, and his expression softened. "It'll be all right, Sally, you'll see." He stepped forward and brushed her cheek with his lips. Then he leaped away and teleported before she could react.
"Sonic Hedgehog!" Sally exclaimed to the empty room. "You're a fox!" Then, grinning, she hurried downstairs to call GUN again.
* * *
Metal Sonic's head jerked up. The sensor net spread across the fleet had detected a flash of chaos energy to the east. A small pulse with the signature of a teleport. He glanced at Mekion, who was focused on the console before him. Mekion had not teleported, and therefore it must be ...
"The hedgehog," Metal Sonic whispered. He checked the radar and saw a small blip headed into the fleet. The biplane? No, too big. Some other kind of aircraft, and moving slowly. The fleet was 150 miles from the colonies--how had Sonic found out? How? Metal Sonic clenched his fists, the biofibers flexing in his arms.
He turned on Mekion. "Did you inform the hedgehog of my attack?"
"No Master," said Mekion, looking blank. "I had very little conversation with him, and even if I had known about your plan, I would not have revealed it to him. Doing so would harm you."
"And you cannot do that," muttered Metal Sonic. "He must have found out in some other fashion. Well, if he thinks he can fly into my fleet unchallenged, he is mistaken." Metal Sonic turned back to his console and issued instructions for fighter drones to take off and attack the incoming craft.
Mekion watched the planes take off on his own screen. "Master," he whispered, "Sonic can teleport and stop time like I can. How do you expect to kill him with drones?"
"I cannot kill him with drones," said Metal Sonic through his steel teeth. "But I can destroy his transportation, and kill anyone else he may have brought along."
Mekion watched his screen. "What do we do when he reaches the fleet?"
"Fortunately I have a plan in case something like this happened," said Metal Sonic. "My policy has always been distract, distract, distract. I will engineer one final distraction, and as he deals with that, the fleet will continue its designated course. We will reach the colonies at 5:39 AM tomorrow."
Mekion stared at Metal Sonic. "Are you going to fight him yourself?"
Metal Sonic didn't answer, but his body transformed into liquid, rearranged and solidified into his battle-armor mode.
Mekion's eye widened. "No Master, he will destroy you! I cannot allow it!"
"I am his equal," growled Metal Sonic. "There is nothing that he can do that I cannot. Nothing! If he inflicts damage, I can heal myself."
He lifted one hand above his head and slowly curled his fingers into a fist. The chaos field around the fleet shifted, pulling together the moisture in the air into mist, then clouds. It was the weather control Metal Sonic had learned from the rainfrog and the chao, and he had planned to use it to shield his fleet from enemy eyes. That time was now. Clouds enveloped the fleet, turning the sky black and deepening the night. Then, at another signal, the fleet switched off all external lights.
"Continue directing the fleet," said Metal Sonic. "And stay out of the main defense tower."
Metal Sonic strode out into the darkness, and Mekion gazed after him with foreboding. Inside him, Mekion was seething between the three laws and his orders, and Shadow was watching nervously. Both halves of his mind wanted to follow his Master out and defend him from Sonic, who was stronger than Metal Sonic gave him credit for. But Mekion's orders were to remain here and direct the fleet, a tricky task with no external lights. For the moment, the First Law was weaker than the Second Law, for his Master had given him a strong command.
So Mekion obeyed, fretting.
* * *
Amy, Cream and Big stood looking out a window. They had seen all the ships' lights go out, and wondered what it meant. Cream shivered. "Ooo, there's somebody using a really big chaos field here. I can feel it pulling. He's making clouds come."
"Who could do that?" asked Amy, eyes widening.
Big scratched his head. "Froggy could. Do you think somebody is making Froggy work for them?"
"I hope not," said Cream. "Because what would they do to Monty? He couldn't do anything!"
"Besides, that black hedgehog isn't here," said Amy.
The three walked on, by now completely lost somewhere about the tenth floor. They tried every door they found, hoping for an elevator. Thus when Amy tried a door marked Lab 8, it opened and she looked in. As soon as the door opened, Cream felt her chaos field mellow. "Monty!" she shrieked, bursting inside.
"Cream!" he cried. He was in a wire cage on a table, and aside from a healing scratch across his head, was in good condition. Cream opened the cage and he leaped into her arms, clinging to her and gentling her chaos field all at once.
"Look," said Amy, pointing to a corner. "There's Froggy!"
Big spotted the aquarium in the corner, and his face lit up. "Froggy!" he exclaimed, hurrying up to it. Hearing his master's voice, Froggy swam to the surface and croaked. He and Monty were both clean, healthy and well-fed. As Big scooped him out of the water, Cream asked, "Monty, what did they steal you for?"
"Metal Sonic wants to control chaos fields," said the chao bitterly. "He told me he didn't, but it was a lie. Just now he called a storm. He's been practicing a lot."
"M--Metal Sonic?" said Amy, shrinking together in terror. "Not Robotnik?"
"Who's Robotnik?" asked Monty.
There was a brief silence.
Then Big said, "Let's get off this ship." The three left the lab at a run.
* * *
Because of the darkness and the blimp's lack of proper sensors, Tails never saw the fighters coming.
One minute the group was flying along, wondering why the fleet had turned off their lights and where the clouds had come from--the next instant there was a deafening explosion, the Albatross pitched, and they were thrown against the right wall. Jets screamed by outside.
"They're attacking us!" Tails cried, groping for the controls. "The port engine is on fire! Sonic, what do we do?"
"Quick, grab your stuff," said Sonic, getting up. "We're sitting ducks up here. I'll teleport us to a ship."
"But we'll be sitting ducks there, too!" said Charmy, opening a cabinet and pulling out the Client's materials.
"Sure," said Sonic, "but I can jump us from ship to ship until we find the right frigate, and no jets can keep up with that. Hurry!"
The seven of them scrambled around the cockpit, grabbing cargo, as the jets screamed around for another pass. Then they all joined hands and Sonic lifted the green emerald. "Chaos relocate!"
They appeared in the roaring wind on the deck of a bomber that Sonic had been watching. "Look!" said Espio, pointing. Off in the distance was an orange explosion, and the Egg Albatross was illuminated in its own flames as the jets shot it again. A second later the envelope caught fire, and the blimp dropped tail-first toward the ocean, burning as it went. All of them were sad to see it go.
"Aye, she was a bonnie ship," said Vector.
"Do we have everyone?" asked Knuckles. They counted heads--all accounted for. Then they checked to make sure they had grabbed the Client's materials, which they had, and the Chaotix's weapons, which they handed out. Sonic refused a gun. "I'm more dangerous on my own two feet," he said. "Now let's go frigate-hunting."
They teleported from ship to ship across the fleet, reading numbers and names. The frigates were huge blue ships patterned after sawfish, with the saw-snout studded with anti-aircraft guns. Teleporting seven people over and over was tiring, and Sonic began to pant and sweat as if he had been running, squinting through the darkness to pick out other frigates. There were so many!
"Seven twenty-three!" Espio exclaimed as they landed on their twenty-fifth frigate. "This is the one!"
"Great," gasped Sonic. "Now to get inside."
The Chaotix and Freedom Fighters fanned out across the deck, looking for a door. They ran to the bridge which reared up above the saw-fish snout like a tower, eyes painted on either side. "Here's a door," Mighty called. The group hurried up to the armadillo and looked at the door--locked, of course.
Knuckles looked at Mighty. "Three hits, you think?"
Mighty looked at the door. "Four."
Knuckles threw a rock-breaking punch, and Mighty kicked it with all his prodigious strength. The door shuddered. They hit it again and it bent. A third time and it crumpled, and they knocked it out of the way. "Three," said Knuckles. "You owe me a soda."
"Done." Knuckles and Mighty shook hands, and they trooped into the darkness within the frigate.
Lights turned on automatically before them, and they saw a stairway leading down. They descended into the ship's belly, which had been modified to hold prisoners instead of jets. Rows of solid metal doors with numbers on them met their gaze. "Cellblock one," said Sonic, leading the way. "And ... cell three. This is the one."
Vector clicked on the communicator. "Sir, we're right outside. Move away from the door."
"You are?" The Client sounded delighted. "Very well!"
Knuckles looked at the door. "Three hits."
"Two," said Mighty.
They hit the door at the same time and knocked it flat. "Okay, one," said Knuckles, looking at the edges where the metal had ripped. Then they all looked into the cell.
Greetings died on their lips and they stared in shock. The human gazed at them from his seat on the floor. "What?" he said. "You mean I actually fooled you this long?"
"I had my suspicions," said Vector, stepping forward and extending a hand. "Dr. Robotnik, I presume?"
Robotnik took his hand and climbed to his feet. "Yes, thank you. You must be Vector."
"Yes," said Vector. He looked around the cell. "Pretty clever, doctor."
Two robot guards had been dismantled and lay along one wall in pieces. The rest of the floor was covered in wires and computer chips, connected to a speaker on the floor where Robotnik had been sitting. The group looked at the mass, realizing Robotnik's brilliance. Imprisoned in here, he took apart his guards and used their parts to make contact with the outside. Papers were scattered everywhere with maps and directions written on them.
Robotnik watched their faces with a smile. "Well, I AM a genius," he said.
"You ordered all that stuff from in here?" asked Espio in disbelief.
Robotnik looked smug, and thumbed his mustache. "You've perhaps heard of mail order? I memorized all my financial numbers long ago--you can buy anything over the phone."
"Including detectives," said Vector. "We brought your stuff. Are you going to pay us?"
"I've already deposited it in your accounts," said Robotnik, grinning. "Of course, you have to survive to get to it."
"Wait, wait, hold it," said Sonic, stepping forward. "Are you the real Robotnik, or another fake?"
Robotnik looked Sonic up and down. "Well well, if it isn't my old friend Sonic. You've let your spines grow longer."
"Answer the question!"
Robotnik rolled up one sleeve and showed them his bare arm. "There. No plugs. If you examined the duplicate closely, you'd have noticed the plug on its upper arms. They are for recalibration."
"So you built the fake one?" asked Tails with interest.
Robotnik shook his head. "Alas, no. I invented the prototype, but it was stolen from me." He looked at the Chaotix. "Destroying those stasis pods at the Rovieg facility would halt production of those units."
"Stolen?" said Sonic. "Stolen by who? And who locked you up in here?"
Robotnik looked around at them. "Why, Metal Sonic, of course. You hadn't figured that out, either?"
"Mecha?" said Sonic in disbelief. "Only Mecha? You're kidding!"
"Only Mecha?" snapped Robotnik. "He revolted and left my service at the beginning of this year. In May he returned with that Mekion-thing in tow, and told me I had better surrender or he would gut me. I didn't have much of a choice. I've been in various prisons ever since."
"But ... how could Mecha orchestrate something this big?" said Knuckles, gesturing at the cell around them. "He's just small fry!"
"Not after his upgrades he isn't," said Robotnik. "He has his own plans, and he sure doesn't tell me about them. Aha, but he underestimated me. I know how he works and what his precious biometal is made of. Thus I designed a weapon to destroy him with, which you boys were kind enough to gather for me."
The Chaotix looked at the pile of parts. "This will destroy Mecha?" said Charmy. "With poison?"
Robotnik gave him a cold look. "You don't know much about biometal, do you?"
"I do," said Knuckles quietly, glancing at Tails. They knew about biometal from their efforts to derobotize Zephyer. Biometal, by its very nature, was vulnerable to certain chemicals.
"Sonic," said Robotnik, "can you still teleport like you did on the ARK?"
"Yes," said Sonic, watching his enemy as if he expected another punch in the nose. "Been doing it a lot lately."
"Good," said Robotnik. "Take us to the Annihilator's deck. It's the flagship, and Mecha's headquarters are there."
"Okay," said Sonic. "I have to see it, though. If I can't picture it, I can't take us there."
They picked up their things and trooped back onto the deck of the frigate. All the external lights were on again, and it was like standing at the center of a starfield--lights stretched for miles in all directions, partially hidden by clouds. Robotnik pointed west, toward a large cluster of yellow lights. "That's the Annihilator. We'll drop in and pay Mecha a visit."
"He knows we're here," said Tails. "What if he attacks us?"
"That's what I'm here for," said Sonic. "He'll go after me. He doesn't care about you guys." He cast a sidelong look at Robotnik. "Making him hate me was a really stupid idea."
Robotnik shrugged. "Was it really? It will bring about his destruction in the end. I thought he would have outgrown that area of his programming by now. He has everything else."
"He must have internalized it," said Tails. "You know ... sees it as his purpose in life."
"There's no time for psychoanalysis," said Knuckles, fidgeting. "Let's go, already!"
They joined hands, and Sonic teleported them all to the Annihilator.
* * *
Sally stood beside Commander Neil in the GUN commander center, deep beneath Rio Del Fuego. It was one in a network of such command centers, and helped protect and administrate all the colonies at once. Sally was impressed with the quality of their equipment, but kept such thoughts to herself to avoid appearing rustic.
The technician at the computer was using a satellite to photograph the coastline of West Mobius, which was a slow process owing to the age of the satellite. Sally tapped her foot, then caught herself and stopped. She had to appear calm and composed, or the humans wouldn't respect her. They already half-thought she was a nutcase anyway, and only her title and credentials had got her down here in the first place.
The satellite photos drew themselves on a screen, line by line. Some were views of the continent, while others were zoomed-in snapshots of the ocean. There was a large amount of cloud cover, so the technician switched to infrared and took the pictures again.
"Sorry for the wait, princess," said Commander Neil apologetically. "This is a weather satellite. We only use it for military purposes when absolutely necessary."
I see why, Sally thought. Aloud she said, "I understand, sir. Hopefully we still have time to prepare." Neil gave her a sidelong look that she ignored. GUN treated Mobians like trained animals, and Sally recognized the mentality. She willed herself to stay calm, and tried not to listen to a tiny voice somewhere inside her that was screaming, "Sonic's out there! Hurry hurry hurry!"
"Sir, look at this," said the technician. Neil stepped up to the screen and squinted at the downloading images. Sally looked, and saw the infrared had picked up the heat trails of so many ships that it looked like a hurricane in red and orange.
Neil swore softly and snatched up a phone. "Get me General McPhietrage, this is an emergency." A second later he said, "James, she was right. There's an airfleet headed toward the mainland, probably launched from Central. Looks like two or three thousand ships, probably carrying others. Yes sir, I know. Yes sir. Yes sir. I'll do what I can. M'bye."
Neil hung up and looked at Sally. "You've been an ambassador between our kinds for years, princess. You need to warn your people and ask them for aid. After Metrocard, they might help us. Or they might not."
"Yes sir, I understand," said Sally. "However, I've been thinking, and all the human craft can't fight that fleet. You can't even defend against it. What we need is a shield. Like a chaos shield."
Neil looked at her in silence. Sally drew a breath and plunged onward. "If we can get enough chaos-positive Mobians into Rio Del Fuego and have them act as chaos drives for the old shield generators, we can pull enough power together to destroy any machine that crosses the barrier."
"You'd have to use the chaos emeralds to do that," said Neil.
Sally pulled the violet stone from her pocket and held it up. "Any questions?"
Neil sighed. "It's worth a try. Marshall your people, and I'll pull ours out of Metrocard. Maybe we'll survive. Stranger things have happened."
Ten minutes later Sally was out on the sidewalk, running toward the Mobian television news station. Could she actually pull off a chaos shield? She had heard of them, and Knuckles and Zephyer had talked about them, but Sally had never seen one, much less constructed one. She pulled out her communicator and called the Floating Island.
Zephyer picked up. "Hello?"
"Zeff, this is Sally," said the squirrel, fear bubbling to the surface at the voice of her friend. "The Egg Fleet is coming to wipe out the colonies. I'm thinking of erecting a shield using the old human shield generators and lots of chaos field. I have the violet emerald. Can I do it?"
"Probably," said Zephyer. "Wouldn't it be easier to let the humans fight, though?"
"Zeff, there's thousands of ships out there! Sonic's trying to stop them, but he said that some would probably get by. I have to do something!"
Zephyer was silent a moment. "You can actually use a chaos emerald?"
"Yes, I think so. The purple one at least. Would a shield work?"
"I'm still learning about all this, myself," said Zephyer. "I think you're gonna need the Master Emerald."
"How can we do that?"
Zephyer muttered, "Knux will kill me," then added louder, "I have the island about two miles offshore. I'll fly it right over you and activate island defense. That'll form a center of chaos power to feed the top of the shield. It's dark, so the island shouldn't cause a panic."
"Thank you, Zephyer," said Sally, entering the TV station. "I'll call you back. Bye!"
She walked up to the counter and said, "Hi. I'm your next big news story. I want to go live in ten minutes."
* * *
The higher Rouge and Omega climbed in the Annihilator, the stranger Omega felt. The endless echoing halls reminded him of something dark and desolate within himself. A sense of unreality, as if he had been here before. But he had been activated on the mainland--he had never been here before. He studied Rouge, wondering how he could predict what she would do or say at any given moment. The more restraints he shook off, the better he became at it. Could he predict other people, too?
There was the clang of a door slamming, and they both jumped. It came from up around a corner. They hurried and looked, and saw a single door in an alcove. With a glance at Omega, Rouge walked to the door and pulled out a lockpick. She tried the knob out of habit, and the door opened. Startled, she pushed it open and stood looking inside. Omega moved up beside her and followed her gaze. Then he stepped inside, the bat followed him, openmouthed.
Ten stasis pods stood along the walls. Inside of each was someone they knew: Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy, Sally, Serena, a chao, Shadow. Rouge stopped at the duplicate of herself and stared in fascinated horror. The final pod contained a robot skeleton, wires and joints bare, with a cloud of nanites around it, building an imitation of muscle tissue and flesh onto it.
"What is this place?" whispered Rouge.
Omega was shaken, too, but could not show it. He checked the mainframe and said, "Clone chamber one. These are android clones. Of Metal Sonic's enemies."
"So who slammed the door?" said Rouge, looking around at the creatures. They looked as if they would open their eyes and watch her if she turned her back on them. All floating, eerie and silent, in green liquid in this dim room.
Omega lifted a hand and pointed at the pod containing 'Shadow'. Grimy handprints smeared the lid. As they looked at the clone, marvelling at its perfection, its eyes opened and met Rouge's.
To her credit she didn't scream, but she leaped backwards.
Omega addressed it over the network. "What is your callsign?"
"C-4," said the clone over the network. "I am recharging, please stand by."
Rouge backed out of the room, gesturing for Omega to follow her, and he obeyed. Once outside, Rouge closed the door and leaned against it, eyes wide and chest heaving. "What purpose could those things have?" she gasped. "That was the most--most horrible thing--"
"Soldiers, perhaps," said Omega. "Or spies. They would be most effective, don't you think?"
Rouge nodded and ran for the nearest staircase. Omega followed her, wondering if he should return and destroy those clones. They could cause many problems if allowed to run around on their own. The sight of them and the robot Shadow had awakened a deep pity within him. It was a new feeling--to feel sorry for a weaker person. They looked alive, but weren't. Destroying them would prevent much grief in the long run. The very sight of them had grieved him, although he didn't know why.
Omega was still musing about the clones when Rouge opened a door, and they stepped into the Annihilator's bridge. It was empty but for Mekion, who looked up as they entered. His good ear flattened in annoyance. "How did you two get out?"
"Mekion," said Rouge, dashing to him. "Metal Sonic is attacking the human colonies. We have to warn them."
Mekion shrugged and looked at his console. "They know. Sensors indicate massive troop movements on the coast."
"Oh good," said Rouge, looking around the bridge. "Where is Metal Sonic?"
"Outside," said Mekion, his whisper hardly audible. "Preparing to fight Sonic."
"Wonderful," muttered Rouge. "Come on, let's go."
"My orders are to remain here," said Mekion.
"And what, watch the fleet?" said Rouge, putting her hands on her hips. "You've been guiding the fleet. Did he tell you to do it forever?"
"You've done your bit. You can leave now."
Mekion's eye narrowed. "You would help fight Metal Sonic, wouldn't you?"
Rouge didn't answer.
"I can't do that," said Mekion. "Nor can I allow you to harm him."
"Oh Shadow," said Rouge in desperation, "this is just like on the ARK! We go out and battle to save thousands of innocent lives, and you sit in here doing nothing! Don't you remember the ARK, Shadow? Remember how you fought the biolizard at the end? You have to do that again. You don't have to fight your Master, but we need your help. You can direct the fleet remotely. Come on!"
Mekion gazed at her in silence, then turned and bolted for the outer doors, Rouge hard on his heels.
Neither of them noticed Omega standing in the middle of the bridge, struck dumb by Rouge's speech. The sensation of de ja vu was stronger than ever now. The ARK. There was something in his databanks about a space station of that name. Saving innocent people? He fought his programming, trying to think. Whatever he was trying to remember was right under the surface, unable to break through because of the robot's restraints. He was dreaming in his metal cocoon, on the verge of awakening, but not quite yet.
Then he realized he was alone, and hurried outside after Rouge and Mekion.
* * *
The wind whipped over the flight deck of the Annihilator, carrying bits of fog with it that caught the yellow and orange lights in the decking and towers. The ship was huge. As Sonic looked around at the runways, adjoining wings and towers, he realized it was bigger than the Egg Carrier. How could something this big fly?
Robotnik and the Chaotix carried their gear into the shelter of a control tower, leaving Sonic, Tails and Knuckles standing in the open. Sonic walked away from them, intentionally singling himself out. "Mecha!" he yelled into the wind. "I know you know I'm here! Come and get me!"
No change or movement anywhere. Sonic waved at the nearest tower. "Yo! Mecha! Wake up! It's cold out here!"
Still no response from anywhere. The ship might have been abandoned for all the signs of life it showed, and yet there was a menace about it, as if it was full of malicious eyes.
Sonic turned in a circle, arms out. "Come on, Mecha! Take your best shot! I'll go easy on you, not!" He turned in a full circle, and as he returned to front, he saw his enemy standing in the middle of the flight deck, facing him. He had appeared out of nowhere, and Sonic jumped in spite of himself.
Metal Sonic strode forward. He wore a black cape that streamed and billowed in the wind, and the lights gleamed off his blue and white battle armor. Sonic had to admit that his old rival looked positively frightening. His spines were longer, his body taller, limbs thicker. He was painted with intricate, almost Celtic patterns, and his eyes glowed red.
The robot stopped ten feet away from Sonic, and the two stared at each other. "Nice getup, Mecha," said Sonic. "What's with the cape? Going for a superhero look now?"
"How did you find out about my fleet?" said Metal Sonic. As he spoke, his face shifted and moved, and Sonic's eyes widened a fraction.
"Uh ... well, you know, I have my sources."
"This operation was a complete secret," said Metal Sonic. "You should not have found out about it until it was too late."
"We got an email," said Sonic, watching his enemy's body language. At the moment Metal Sonic was standing still, head up, nonthreatening. "It was a dare from Robotnik--or sounded like it."
Metal Sonic smiled, and Sonic flinched. Seeing Metal Sonic smile, after all those years of expressionless steel, was mindblowing. "The email," said Metal Sonic. "Yes, I did give you a sporting chance. And here you are."
"You sent it?"
"Yes. I forged his style, quite well, I might add." The claws on one hand opened, and Sonic watched it. As Metal Sonic spoke, his fingers curled in one by one. "I also duplicated his moronic style in the Egg Hawk and Albatross. It worked, for you and all your companions bought it. That is why I do not understand why you are here. Metrocard should have put you off the scent."
His tone changed, something else Sonic wasn't used to, but he understood it. Metal Sonic was angry to the point of insanity, and barely restraining himself.
"Your security isn't the best in the world," said Sonic. He didn't want to incriminate Robotnik, so, to his later regret, he said, "Even Mekion says too much once in a while, you know?"
Metal Sonic's other hand curled into a fist. He was silent a long time, but his eyes were burning brighter and brighter, his face contorting into a scowl. Combined with his sharp features, it made him hideous. Sonic wanted to step back, but didn't. Retreating was a sign of weakness, and he didn't plan to be the weak one in the upcoming fight.
"Look," said Sonic. "Turn this whole fleet around and take it back to where it came from. That way we won't have to kill each other. Okay?"
Metal Sonic lowered his head--his pre-attack signal. Sonic's legs tensed. Metal Sonic hissed, "Oh, only one us will die here tonight, hedgehog." He sprang forward, and Sonic turned and ran across the deck. He looked back and saw with horror that Metal Sonic was pursuing him on foot.
Scorning his jet, Metal Sonic was matching Sonic stride for stride, keeping up as easily as Shadow would have. Sonic dashed across the deck and Metal Sonic followed, running in exactly the same way with the same speed, a duplicate Sonic.
Sonic doubled back in a lightning-quick turn that used to frustrate the robot, who couldn't turn as sharply. But now Mecha made the turn with him, not overshooting an inch. Sonic couldn't shake him.
Starting to panic, Sonic turned and spindashed at Metal Sonic. Mecha was prepared for this, too. He rolled into a spiky metal ball and launched himself at Sonic. They collided and bounced apart, uncurled and got up. Mecha bore scratches across his face from Sonic, and Sonic had two shallow gashes down his side and back from Mecha's spikes.
"You see, hedgehog," said Mecha, "I am your equal now. Nay--your superior."
"Oh yeah?" snarled Sonic. "We'll see about that!" He bolted back to Tails and Knuckles, who had watched this match in shock.
"Sonic," said Tails, "he's really strong now!"
"Like duh," said Sonic. "Blast me at him like we did in Metrocard!"
"You sure?" said Knuckles, watching as the robot stormed toward them.
"Yes!" said Sonic. "Hurry and do it!"
Tails and Knuckles grabbed each other and Sonic like links of a chain, forcing their chaos fields into him, and threw him at Metal Sonic. Sonic struck him three times in succession, moving so fast that Metal Sonic couldn't block him. Mecha was knocked flat, and it took him a moment to get up.
He was dented in three places. But as he stood, the dents shifted, folding themselves back out. "You still think you're better than me, don't you?" he snarled
"Is that a trick question?" Sonic grinned. Mecha had been starting to scare him, but Sonic could still take him. They could all still take him.
The high-altitude wind ruffled Sonic's spines, the fur on top of Tails' head, and teased Knuckles's dreadlocks. Tails and Knuckles watched warily as the two hedgehogs talked.
"Catch me, then. If you think you CAN." Metal Sonic ignited his engine and flew up towards the main defense tower of the Annihilator, and after a second Sonic followed.
It was like the side of a skyscraper, with gun turrets and protrusions and an uneven, metal surface. At its base it smoothed out to merge with the deck of the airship, while higher up it became vertical. Metal Sonic flew up over its surface, while Sonic ran up the tower at its base and then began jumping, tapping off ledges and swinging across gun turrets to catch up to Mecha. And Sonic was gaining on him.
"That can't be right ... " Tails watched nervously. "Mecha's a lot faster than that."
"He's baiting him." Knuckles looked grim.
"Sonic!" The fox cupped his hands to his mouth. "Sonic, come back!"
* * *
Halfway down the Annihilator's deck, at the base of a small tower with another gun turret on top, the Chaotix looked on as Robotnik assembled the pieces they'd brought him. Amy, Cream and Big stood nearby, and Amy had been watching Sonic the whole time.
"Why are they shouting?" Cream asked. She had one of her ears up to hear better.
"Dunno." Monty shook his head.
The bright dot of Mecha's engine flew up to the very top of the main tower, a huge metal antenna-like structure on top of the command bridge, and winked out. Sonic was still jumping across the tower to get to him, and was almost there.
Then the sky lit up. A silent bolt of lightning stretched from the top of the antenna into the sky, and stayed there. Froggy gave a long, moaning croak.
"What's that?" Cream hid behind Big.
Then a surge of energy pulsed down from the sky into the tower, and it exploded. Chunks of debris and fragments of armor went flying, falling into the ocean or clattering and scraping across the Annihilator's deck.
Amy screamed, and stared at the spot where Sonic had been. A giant piece of armor, still flaming from the explosion, came skidding along the deck towards them, and Mighty pulled her away as it crashed into the tower.
Robotnik cursed and nearly dropped his tools. He kept himself locked in concentration, while the Chaotix stared open-mouthed.
Rouge, Mekion and Omega emerged from a door in the base of the tower, and Rouge was covering her ears and shouting, "What the heck was that?"
Vector growled at her, Charmy backed off a couple of feet, and Espio simply pointed.
A tall, blue pillar of energy was shooting up out of the wreckage now, and a thick ring of light swirled about it. But the pillar of energy narrowed until it vanished, and the ring was coalescing, tearing off pieces of the tower and condensing into something blue and monstrous in the center.
* * *
Knuckles and Tails weren't watching. They'd run to the spot where they'd seen Sonic land, and now they were kicking pieces of debris aside and trying to find him. The debris was too hot to handle, even with gloved hands.
"Son-iic!" Tails was frantic.
Knuckles cocked his head to one side, listening. "I think I hear him."
Tails stopped kicking at the debris, and his ears pivoted. It sounded like somebody nearby was coughing, but it was tough to hear because of all the noise coming from above.
* * *
The red and orange dots in the distance ran to a huge piece of metal blown off from the tower.
But Amy and Cream were staring at mess of the tower. Only a few seconds had passed, and spikes, gears, pieces of armor were flying together into the mass on top of the wreckage, sliding across each other and slamming together with metallic clangs. They were forming into something alive, with articulate limbs and a tail, and it writhed in the vortex.
Monty shielded his eyes as he looked at it, even though it wasn't bright to the rest of them. Amy put both hands over her mouth, and stared without blinking. And Cream buried her face in Big's side, clinging as tightly as she could. The cat put one arm around her.
* * *
"I found him!" Tails called, and pointed at a giant curved piece of panelling. Knuckles heard him, and they both ran.
Sonic was laying on his side, bruised and covered in silvery dust, which he was coughing out of his lungs. It sounded awful. One foot was pinned to the deck by the heavy panel, and would have been crushed if not for the metal groove in his soapshoe.
"Knux! Tails!" he coughed. "Help get me outta here!"
Tails and Knuckles ran to either side of the panel. Knuckles and Tails heaved at the piece of metal. They got it a fraction of an inch loose, Sonic yanked his foot out, and they dropped it to the deck with a clang.
Sonic coughed again, hard, and a cloud of dust came out of his mouth. "Man!" He shook his head to clear it. "What WAS that?"
Tails pointed upwards.
The last spikes merged the tail as the surrounding nimbus of light dispersed. Standing on top of the wrecked tower was a blue metal dragon, its feet wired into the floor, and its streamlined, featureless head reminiscent of Metal Sonic's.
Seams opened on top of the head and became two red eyes, one on top of the other. The dragon reared back and roared, shaking the whole ship. Sonic's spines and Knuckles's dreadlocks were blown back.
"Tails?" Sonic said, as silence fell and the dragon turned to look down at them.
The fox's ears perked up.
* * *
Espio squinted off into the distance. From his vantage point up on the side gun turret-tower, clinging with his bare hands, he could see a whole slew of orange robots running towards them. They weren't carrying weapons, though ... they were fleeing. From Mecha.
Leading the pack were Sonic, Tails and Knuckles, running and jumping through the debris. It covered the Annihilator's deck, right up to where the Chaotix were standing. Robotnik worked in the shelter of the huge piece of metal that'd crashed into their tower, and it looked like he was almost done.
Espio jumped down. "They're headed our way."
"Do they need any help?" Amy asked.
"Not that I know of ... "
The Mecha-dragon swept one hand in Sonic's direction. In unison, the gun turrets along the ship's surface turned to point at Sonic.
" ... definitely."
"Annihilate!" Omega shouted, dancing from foot to foot in glee. And then he charged.
Omega sprayed gunfire at the nearby turrets, damaging or disabling each one in turn. Rouge flew past him, using her magnigens on the ones that refused to shut down, and jumped out of the way when Omega fired at the turret she attacking.
"Be more careful!" she shouted, but Omega ignored her.
Rouge and Omega couldn't destroy all the towers at once, and a handful of explosive shells firing up in the air, raining down destruction on the deck. Sonic and Knuckles leapt out of the way, and helped Tails up when he stumbled. The Annihilator's surface looked like a warzone, with craters and burnt wreckage, and a huge metal monster towering over it all.
One of the turrets pointed at the Chaotix. Rouge froze it with her magnigens before it fired, but that was a close enough call for the Chaotix's tastes. They hurried through the door at their tower's base, helping Robotnik gather up his equipment and making him hurry. He was being stubborn, though, so Big picked him up and set him inside after the Chaotix had gone down the stairs.
"You insufferable furball!" the human shouted. "I should've-"
Big shut the door in his face. "You two should go inside," he told Amy and Cream. Froggy croaked his assent.
"Uh-uh." They both shook their heads. "That's my Sonic out there!" Amy protested.
"And my Tails!" Cream put in.
Amy gave her a confused look. "Your Tails?"
Cream nodded. "He's going to ask me to marry him someday," she said, solemnly.
"O-kay, if you say so ... " Amy looked bewildered, and Monty tried to ignore both of them.
Mekion stood off to the side, watching as Sonic and the others approached. He felt like he should have helped him, somehow. But the others were taking care of things now, and Sonic was almost to safty.
Besides, he had heard the network transmission telling the guns to fire. If he had interfered, that would have been going against his Master's orders. But then, they hadn't been given specifically to him, and ...
"Mekion!" Sonic exclaimed, skidding to a halt in front of him. "What're you doing standing there?"
"I think you answered your own question," Tails panted, trotting up beside him, winded.
"Sonic!" Amy cried, running up to him. "I'm so glad you're all right!"
She had her arms outstretched, as if she meant to hug him. Sonic sidestepped, twice, using Mekion for cover, and Cream held one of her ears around herself and gave Tails a shy look. The fox pretended not to notice.
"He's not gonna be all right in a second here," Knuckles said as he jogged up. "Look." He pointed.
Mecha clenched his right hand into a first and thrust it out to the side. Mekion heard the new network transmission: "Course change. One-eighty degrees. Sharp bank."
The Annihilator's surface began to tilt to the side as its engines fired and thrust the ship into a turn. Mekion pressed one metal foot to the deck, leaned into the wind and stood his ground, but the air was rushing across the deck and threatened to sweep the others away. The robots that had been running were blown clean away, and were never seen again.
Rouge was airborne at the time, and would've been blown right off the ship if Omega hadn't caught her. Knuckles' dreadlocks caught the air, and he nearly blew away, but Sonic and Tails each took one of his arms and helped drag him over to the shelter of the piece of wreckage against the little tower.
Tails groped to the door and held onto the handle. Knuckles held onto a metal protrusion inside the wreckage, Sonic anchored himself between it and the tower, and Amy clung tightly to Sonic. Much to Sonic's dismay.
Even with both ears wrapped around herself and Monty tucked safely inside them, Cream was having trouble staying on the tilting deck. She tried to edge closer to safety, but with both hands holding her ears close she couldn't reach for a handhold, not without one of her long ears unfolding and catching the wind. Tails noticed, and after thinking for a second he grabbed her arm and pulled her to safety. She gave him a worshipful look.
Big and Shadow stayed out in the wind, the cat held in place by his own bulk and the hedgehog clamping his metal foot down on the deck, farther off. He was having trouble staying there, though. His spines were blowing wildly, and his real eye was squinting at the wind. He had a determined look on his face.
"What the heck is he doing?" Sonic shouted, and tried to push Amy away without shoving her.
"Maybe Mecha told him to stay put?" Tails offered.
The ship creaked beneath them. It was a long, moaning sound, followed by an earsplitting crack and a shudder. Tails yelped and covered his ears, and Cream gave him a pitying look.
Mekion nearly lost his footing. Damage reports were flooding the network -- the ship had been cored by Mecha's transformation, and what was left of its systems couldn't stand up to the stress.
"Master," Mekion said through the network, trying to retain his footing as the wind whipped about him. "You will destroy your own flagship."
The dragon wasn't paying attention.
Shadow's muscles were taxed to their limits, and Mekion's own systems were at ninety percent of their tolerance levels. He was standing on the outside of an aircraft, trying to keep from being swept off, and if he moved he would die.
"Master," he transmitted, "I am out here, on the deck."
"So is my nemesis," Mecha hissed in vicious hatred.
Out of the corner of his eye, Mekion saw Rouge in one of Omega's big hands, her wings whipping helplessly in the wind. Omega flinched at Mecha's transmission, and he almost let her go.
"We have one of the chaos emeralds," Mekion said, nearing desperation. "If the ship is destroyed or we are swept off, it will be lost in the ocean."
A few seconds of network silence. Then: "New course change. Flagship stabilize. Egg Fleet move to accomodate."
The ship leveled out so fast that Rouge was knocked into Omega and the others were thrown forward. Mekion went flying, but Big caught him by one arm. The wind was so strong that he hadn't heard the cat approaching.
"Hi," Big said, and set him on the deck once the wind subsided. Shadow came down in a crouch.
"What were you DOING, Mekion?" Sonic pushed away from Amy and ran over to him.
Mekion gave him a dirty look and didn't answer.
"Sonic, I think we've got bigger problems ... " Tails came over to join them. "Look! All the other ships are moving around."
The Annihilator had turned inside its formation, and the other ships moved aside to make room. But they were also closing in on the deck and lowering altitude, and the air echoed with mechanical whines and clicks as dozens of gun turrets swiveled.
"He has ordered them to fire on you all at once," Mekion told Sonic as he stood up and carefully stretched his real leg. "They are moving into a formation to do so."
"Oh, man ... " Sonic rubbed at his face with both hands. "Shadow! Tell Mecha that I'll just Chaos Relocate out of here. I have a Chaos Emerald, and I'm not afraid to use it."
Mekion's electronic eye flickered out for a few seconds as if he had closed it. "He says that he will kill your friends and destroy the humans, if you don't surrender immediately ... or stop him."
"KNEEL BEFORE YOUR MASTER!" the dragon roared, and Tails covered his ears and grimaced in pain.
It only made Sonic mad. "Looking for a fight then, is he? Alright, 'Metal Sonic.' Bring it on."
He held out a hand to Tails and Knuckles, and they grabbed his arm. Then he held the emerald high in his other hand, and shouted. "Time Stop!"
The world stood still.
The three raced across the frozen deck to the central tower, where Mecha had transformed. They made double time in getting across the wreckage, because this time they weren't jumping and climbing against the wind.
The running was wearing Tails out. "Sonic ... " he panted, "how're we gonna beat Mecha now? Last time we fought a dragon, you had to go Super!"
"Mecha's all ego." Sonic wasn't even winded. "We'll just get up to where he is, and then you two can blast me at his face. I've still got the green emerald, just in case." He grinned. "We can take him."
Knuckles raised one eyebrow at Sonic. Tails nodded, and tried to keep up.
When time resumed, they were almost to the base of the tower. Mecha looked down at them, and roared. "Get away!"
"Or what?" Sonic called out.
Mecha extended his left hand and spread his claw-fingers. Each claw detached from his hand, coasted for a second, then ignited a rocket engine in back, and new ones grew out to replace them immediately.
Sonic and Knuckles jumped onto the tower, Knuckles digging in with his claws and climbing and Sonic leaping up across it as before. The missiles hit near them, bursting open with a blast of green light and the sound of breaking glass. They dove out of the way as more shot down, Sonic jumping clear of the missiles and Knuckles swinging behind cover.
Tails flew up to join them, but he reached the tower a few seconds late. A missile exploded right next to him, the fragments whirled together in a glittering cloud, and suddenly he was trapped in a crystal dome.
Sonic gasped. "Tails!"
"Help!" Tails's voice was muffled. He beat on the inside of it.
There was a flash of light. Shadow, Rouge and Omega appeared, all holding hands while Shadow held onto the red Chaos Emerald. He let go of them and spindashed the dome that held Tails, shattering the crystal into fast-dissolving pieces.
"Whew! Thanks." Tails wiped his forehead.
"MEKION!" Shadow reeled as his Master's voice bellowed over the network. "How dare you interfere!"
"I ... am sorry, Master." Shadow lowered his head in shame.
"Destroy that robot, and all of the Mobians." Mecha flexed his claws. "Now."
* * *
"Now what's he doing?" Knuckles looked back as he heard Rouge scream. She was clutching her arm as if it was broken, and she'd dropped a small piece of equipment. Mekion took it in his metal hand and crushed it.
"We'll find out later, Knux, we're almost there! Keep climbing!" Sonic could travel faster than Knuckles could, since there were a lot of things for him to jump across, and he was getting impatient. But he didn't want to Chaos Relocate, because he'd done it a million times already that day, and it tired him in a way that mere running and jumping couldn't. He didn't want to appear right next to Mecha, winded and unable to defend himself.
Back down on the deck, Omega was gleeful. Rouge had told him not to attack Shadow. But Shadow had just attacked Rouge. Therefore, he could now disregard that order. Tails ran for cover when he heard Omega's guns click, and Rouge yelled at Omega to stop. But again, Omega wasn't paying attention.
He locked onto Shadow, and a targetting bracket appeared around the hedgehog. Omega fired his rotary autocannons, his whole chassis vibrating with the recoil, as counters ticked down the number of rounds left in each. And Shadow bolted, jumping aside and somersaulting as Omega attempted to track him.
Shadow leapt into the debris field, touched off of a large piece of metal and spindashed into Omega, hitting him in the chest before Omega could put up his shield. Omega staggered backwards with the impact, and both of his guns jammed. Now more readouts came up on his display -- 29% damage sustained.
Omega's pilot grinned without knowing it. Now HERE was a battle that he might lose.
* * *
Surrounding Mecha were four wide platforms which had been cargo bays that had had their roof and walls blown out when he had transformed. Sonic crouched below them, behind a surviving fragment of the wall, and waited for Knuckles to join him.
Sonic glanced down at the deck. Shadow had gone crazy and attacked Omega, it looked like. Or was it the other way around? Tails had taken cover next to the tower, and it looked like he was trying to decide whether or not to climb further up.
Better not wait for him, Sonic decided. Knuckles scrambled up to where Sonic was, and their eyes met. Knuckles looked tense. Sonic counted down from three with his fingers, then the two of them vaulted over the top and charged.
Mecha swung his tail as soon as they came up. Sonic dove under it, but Knuckles was caught full-on and sent flying. He was tough enough that it didn't kill him, but he just barely managed to catch the wind with his dreadlocks before going over the side.
Sonic watched as Knuckles glided down to the tower below and Mecha's tail whipped back into position. "You're really being a pain, Mecha, you know that?"
Spines shot out of Mecha's back this time, and turned into missiles that swerved around and shot at Sonic.
He jumped onto them, leaping off of each one in midair and landing on Metal Sonic's head. Mecha roared, ducking his head and swiping at Sonic, but the hedgehog had already run down his back, dodging aside as a new spine grew out and grinding down Mecha's tail. Just to see if he could.
Mecha swung his tail, and Sonic rolled off of it and onto the platform on the other side. Sonic stood back up with a grin on his face as Mecha turned to face him.
Lightning flickered in the clouds, illuminating them with gold and red light, and the sound of gunfire echoed from below. Sonic remained uneasy, but he was exhilarated, too. "You can teach an old 'hog new tricks," he said, "but you still can't win against me. Eh, Mecha?"
"Burn to death."
Metal Sonic's right hand opened to reveal a flamethrower nozzle in his palm. He ignited it and swept yellow flame across Sonic's platform in a wide arc, torching boxes and crates and melting the surface. Sonic ran forward, jumping onto the back of Mecha's hand and spindashing his face, leaving a deep dent. Mecha roared and flailed his arms, almost catching Sonic, and his jet of flame shot into the sky.
The dragon snarled as Sonic landed on the scorched platform. Mecha turned off his flamethrower, and his claws clenched into fists as the dent in his head swelled back out. His whole body was shaking with anger. "You will die, Sssonic, and so will the humans!"
"Eh, you always say that," said Sonic, faking a yawn. "Mister ego trip."
The platform beneath him shook, and Sonic held out his arms to balance himself. Mecha was rising out of his place, two long tentacles of silvery biometal pulling up and turning into clawed, armored legs.
Sonic's eyes flicked to either side. The platforms around Metal Sonic were barely large enough for him to stand on. How was Mecha planning to fight that way?
Mecha stood erect, bracing himself against the platforms on either side. Below him was the inside of the tower, hollowed out from top to bottom by his transformation. Now that he had two legs and a tail, he was surprisingly well-balanced, more agile and sure of his movements.
"Do you know what your weakness is, hedgehog?" he growled, arching his neck and baring his teeth. "It is your friends." And before Sonic could move, Mecha turned and leaped down to the deck.
* * *
Grunting with exertion, knuclaws worn out from climbing over metal, Knuckles the Echidna paused on a ledge below one of the platforms, catching his breath. His head was still pounding from the blow from Mecha's tail, and all he could hear was the ringing in his ears and the wind rushing past.
Bracing himself against the wall, he pulled himself upwards enough that he could look over the edge of the platform.
There was no one there.
Bewildered, he climbed up the rest of the way and looked around. "Sonic?"
Not waiting for an answer, he walked across the platform and looked in all directions, including up. He'd been too involved in his climbing, and his head had hurt too much, to notice the battle had moved from the tower.
He cupped his gloved hands to his mouth. They smelled like oil and metal. "Sonic! Where-"
The hedgehog leaped up over the side of the next platform. "Knux, get with the program!"
The echidna blinked. "Huh?"
"Mecha's down there now." Sonic pointed at the monster on the deck. "I had to come partway back up here just to tell you! C'mon!"
He jumped back over the side, bounding down the same way he'd come up. Knuckles rubbed at his eyes, then gave a groan of disgust as he realized he had wiped oil across his face.
He walked to the edge of the platform and looked down. Mecha was a towering two-legged dragon with a dangerous lashing tail, striding through the debris, kicking and swiping at his tiny enemies. Tails airlifted Sonic and dropped him onto Mecha's head. Sonic ricocheted off and distracted Mecha long enough for Omega to fire, and Omega's rocket exploded in the dragon's maw, blowing a chunk of metal out of Mecha's jaw.
As Sonic and Tails distracted Mecha, Shadow darted about on the deck, looking for an opening to spindash Omega. The robot stood ready, turning on his shield every few seconds in anticipation of an attack.
Mecha looked smaller from Knuckles's perch on the tower, like a normal-sized person fending off mosquitoes. Rouge was nowhere in sight. Knuckles snickered, and it made him cough.
His friends were doing okay, and he was beat. Literally. If he went down there right now he'd be a target for Mecha. Better to rest a few moments.
He tried sitting down, but his whole side was still sore from where he'd been tail-slapped. Knuckles began pacing instead, slowly, in a wide circle around the platform.
But something didn't feel right, and he wasn't sure what it was. It felt like when he'd been tracking the Master Emerald shards across Sapphire City ... except not quite. The same kind of call, but in a different voice.
He closed his eyes for a second, trying to get a feel for where it was coming from. Then he opened his eyes and followed the signal.
It led him to the inside edge of the platform. Light shone on his face from below as he looked down into the deep well that had been the inside of the tower. His eyes widened.
* * *
Omega was giddy. He had two targets to deal with: Shadow and Mecha, the enemy. And he'd done damage to his enemy! It was huge, the kind that could take tons of damage before going down. And his enemy could dish it out, too.
Sonic and Tails kept jumping around the monster robot, preventing Omega from getting a lock but also angering Mecha, and making him swat at them. If they could hold his attention for a few seconds and get away, Omega could fire his autocannons at Mecha.
Shadow was annoying, though. Metal Sonic had told him to distract Omega, over the network, and Shadow was doing a good job of it. Omega had been hit twice already, bringing his damage up to 48%. If he let his guard down again, he might be destroyed. He didn't want to be destroyed while he still had ammo left!
Shadow spindashed him again to test his defenses. This time Omega took the hit instead of putting up his shield. It threw Shadow off-balance, giving Omega enough time to grab him and throw him at Mecha. Shadow barely curled into a ball as he hit.
It didn't do much damage, for Omega couldn't throw him as fast as Shadow could spindash. But it startled both Shadow and Mecha, and made Sonic and Tails jump out of the way.
"Mekion!" Mecha snarled over the network. "What are you doing?"
Mecha had turned his back on Omega. Now as he turned again, Omega opened fire with both autocannons, sending hundreds of rounds into Mecha's hull.
Most of the shells bounced off of Mecha's armor, ricocheting across the deck like sparks. But some struck vulnerable parts, and shavings of blue metal and black tubes went flying as well. Sonic and Tails bolted out of range, while Shadow jumped backwards and stared, dumbfounded. Those guns would have ripped him apart, and his Master was holding an arm up to block their fire.
He was also growling, over the network and in person.
"Master?" Shadow said the network. "Should I-"
"NAARGH!" Mecha stomped towards Omega, still holding his arm out in front of him to ward off the spray of cannonfire, and Omega's chassis shook with the deck.
Omega's guns clicked and stopped firing. He tried them a couple more times before realizing that he was out of ammo. And rockets.
Only one thing to do, then! Omega charged towards Mecha, even though he was less than a quarter of Mecha's size.
Mecha picked Omega up in his claws and threw him. Omega landed across the deck a hundred feet away with a violent crash and grinding of metal.
Omega's camera view went out. He heard a loud, electric buzzing noise for a few seconds, then that stopped, too.
It was dark all around him. Was this what 100% damage looked like? His heart raced, and suddenly he could feel it, warm and beating inside him. He'd won! He was destroyed! Now he just had to find a way out ...
His brain was hazy, still drugged by the machines. But he twisted around inside his shell, fighting the restraints. Mecha roared again somewhere off in the distance, but Omega wasn't paying attention. He was looking for a light, for some indication that his hull had been breached enough to climb through.
Then he saw it. Through a crack in the metal he saw light gray outside. Clouds! The sky! He cursed the restraints, fighting them for all he was worth and trying to get out.
The deck started to shake all around him with the same rhythmic pounding he'd heard a few seconds earlier.
The dragon grabbed up Omega's chassis and tore open the metal, breaking it in half like an egg. All of a sudden Omega was hanging upside-down, and the world was enormous, and the restraints were the only things keeping him from falling. He found himself holding on to them, begging them not to give way.
He saw the dragon's clawed feet and hand as it tossed the other half of his shell aside. He also saw himself. He was a chao.
* * *
Sonic ran up the side of the ruined tower when Omega started firing, and Tails flew up with him. They watched for a few seconds, and Tails cringed as Mecha roared.
They didn't hear Knuckles gliding down, even after he landed next to them. Sonic jumped when Knuckles tapped him on the shoulder. "Whoa! Don't do that to me, Knux!"
Knuckles ignored him. "Sonic, I found something."
"Like what?" Tails' ears perked up. Out on the battlefield, Omega and Mecha collided with a resounding crash of metal.
"It's some kind of chaos energy field," Knuckles went on. "Looks like a pool of biometal nanites, all glowing with energy."
Sonic gave him a weird look. "How do you know?"
"I was just working with biometal a few months ago, to de-robotize Zephyer. Remember?" Knuckles folded his arms.
"So, that's what Mecha used to become this?" Tails pointed down at Mecha, as Mecha flung Omega across the deck. Then Tails cringed as Omega bounced and clattered across it, finally stopping at the edge.
"That'd be my guess," Knuckles said with a nod. "Some of the nanites looked sort of drained. I saw where some of them had been drained completely and died." He held up his glove, where he'd rubbed it across the inside of the platform. It was coated in silvery dust.
Sonic coughed. "You mean when I was down there, I was choking on dead nanites?"
"I think so, Sonic... "
Tails watched, mesmerized, as Mecha in dragon form stomped over to Omega's wrecked chassis. He'd destroyed Omega without even trying.
"Don't worry, it's not like they'll hurt you." Knuckles put one hand to his chin. "I think."
"What?" Sonic called. He had to raise his voice to be heard, for Mecha was tearing Omega in half.
"I said I don't think it'll hurt you!"
The noise subsided. "Sonic..." Tails sounded worried. "Mecha's trashing that robot."
"It's an E-series robot. Wasn't that last one you fought piloted?"
Sonic's eyes went wide. "Oh, crud!"
* * *
Giant claws tore out the dark black-and-red hedgehog chao out of his restraints. Mecha brought up his other hand, claws curled, as if he were pulling the wings off a fly. "Don't worry, little chao," he growled. "You won't suffer long."
The chao panicked as the last of his cage was torn away. As he was freed of the robot, however, his memories oozed back into his head even as Mecha's talons prodded his body. He was a chao! He had been named for Darkness, because he had patterned himself after a Shadow. He writhed and screamed for all he was worth. "Shadow, help me!"
Sonic had been bounding down the tower towards them, ready to resume the fight. When he heard the chao's shout he stopped, dumbstruck.
So did Mekion. Mekion had been watching his Master, knowing better than to interfere. But the chao's scream bypassed Mekion and went straight to Shadow's heart. That creature was linked to his past the way the pink hedgehog was. Again his withered memories struggled to resurface, and fragments flashed through his head--a darkened space station, sterile space with the stars glinting down, a pale human girl with golden hair, a black chao with tears in his eyes, a mighty phoenix who lay dying ...
The name leaped out of Mekion's databanks, along with photos that Robo Knux had given Mekion months ago. Nox had been Shadow's chao. Shadow had hated the chao until Shadow had had his epiphany, and saw that Nox's devotion was the same kind of love that Maria had shown him.
Nox had died. But here he was, impossibly, alive against all reason. And Mecha was going to rip him in half.
Shadow raced through the debris field, skating over and around all the obstacles. "What are you doing?" Mekion screamed at him. "That chao means nothing to us. It is the pilot of Omega, who has tried to destroy us every chance he got! Don't you remember his attack of five minutes ago?"
"It's Nox," Shadow replied. "Nox, not Omega."
He didn't know what he planned to do, other than keep his Master from destroying the chao. He dashed up a steel girder that lay on the wreck at an angle and jumped off the top before he had time to think about what he was doing. He curled into a deadly metal-edged ball of spines and tore into the base of Mecha's neck.
Mecha roared in pain, rearing erect. Shadow uncurled from his spin, landed on Mecha's right arm and grinded down it like lightning, grabbing Nox out of Mecha's claws as he passed, and landed on one of the disabled gun turrets.
Mecha writhed, pressing both clawed hands to the place he'd been struck, which was a four-foot gash gushing silver liquid. As it began to close, he looked up to see his creation, his attacker, at chest height, clutching his chao tightly to him. Nox shivered in the cold.
Mecha stared in disbelief, and Shadow matched his gaze. Neither spoke for a long moment, and the rain began to pour, splattering off of Mecha's armor and running down in rivulets.
Mecha felt absolutely betrayed. Shadow had violated the First Law! How dare he! Shadow, who he had almost dared trust, Shadow, who he had almost thought would remain faithful to the end, Shadow, who in the end, he had underestimated. Conflicting emotions seared the heart he would not admit he had. He wanted Shadow to back off, to admit he was wrong. He wanted Shadow to set down the chao and let him mangle it. He wanted to hear Shadow grovel for mercy. But what he really wanted to do, he couldn't. Because he didn't have any tear ducts.
Something like a roar lodged in his throat. He tried his best to let it out before it choked him, but what came out was a growl. Low, menacing, and loud.
Shadow closed his eyes, horrified at what he had done. He had attacked his Master--the supreme crime. Mekion was so overcome with rage and shock that he could think of nothing to say. First Law had been broken! The penalty was death.
Shadow felt remorse, grief, sorrow. Shadow had, apart from any programming or brainwashing, come to adore Metal Sonic the way a halfwit son adores his brilliant father. And now the sick horror within him surpassed any pain programming could inflict. He had attacked the one person whom he adored. He was no better than any of the others running around the deck tonight. He was just another enemy of his Master's, even though he had tried so hard to fight for his Master--
"Master... " he whispered, in Shadow's voice. "Forgive me."
Mecha's growl turned into words. "Too little, too LATE."
He tore the gun turret from the deck and threw it over the side of the ship. Shadow jumped off, and Mecha swung his tail at him, moving surprisingly fast. Shadow barely jumped over it, and dodged the flamethrower attack which followed.
Sonic rushed towards them, Tails and Knuckles in tow. But there was still a huge obstacle field in the way, and when Mecha saw them coming he made it worse. A volley of spines shot out of his back, and where they landed they burst into crystal formations, tall and spiny, each edge razor sharp. They were translucent, and shaped like dead branches.
Sonic and his friends dodged around them, leaped over jagged, metallic craters and pelted towards Shadow as fast as they could. They only needed a few seconds to reach him, but it was clear that he would not last that long. Shadow had to carry Nox in one arm and the red Chaos Emerald in the other, and Mekion was fighting him every step of the way, making him stumble and slip as his metal half started to regain control.
He had broken the first law. Now Master would punish him. And Shadow deserved it all.
As for Mecha, he no longer cared what happened to his flawed, stupid, rebellious creation. All he could think about now was how much it would hurt Sonic to see his friend die.
He finally trapped Shadow inside one of his missiles' glass domes and began torching it with his flamethrower. The air inside became hot and sticky, and Shadow found he could barely move. "We're going to burn to death," he said, recalling his Master's words.
"Not me," Nox said, and stared into the flames. "Fire doesn't scare me. I dance in fire."
Water condensed inside the crystal. It turned different colors, and began to melt on the outside. Then Sonic and Tails arrived, and with Knuckles to swing them they both flew at Mecha.
Mecha's aim was knocked wild as they hit his arm. Pieces of biometal went flying, and his armor reformed around it as he turned around to kill his attackers. But the Mobians were too fast, and he too angry, for him to hit them.
They ran around and underneath him, regrouping when he was disoriented, and flinging themselves at him. Sonic fought like fury itself, for he knew what would happen to Shadow and Nox if he didn't.
But Mecha was too strong, and his damage was repairing itself. Plus, he was not showing any signs of tiring out. And Sonic was growing winded.
Tails was already tired. "We need to come up with a better plan," he huffed.
Mecha swung his tail at them, and spun right around to do so again. It glanced off the top of Shadow's prison, cracking the glass, while Sonic rolled underneath it twice and Knuckles and Tails jumped out of the way. Knux landed near Shadow's prison.
"Sonic, I'm gonna break Shadow out." He drew back a fist. "Cover me."
Mecha launched more prison-dome missiles from his hand, one at a time, about fifty feet away from where Shadow was. Sonic and Tails ran in front of them, making them burst open harmlessly on the deck. But Tails was lagging behind, so finally Sonic had to grab him by the arm and run twice as fast.
Knuckles broke Shadow out, after a quick series of punches. Shadow was suffering from heat exhaustion by then, and nodded his thanks as he stumbled away from the battlefield, still holding Nox to him protectively. The red emerald glowed in his other hand.
Sonic and Tails ran to Knuckles as soon as he finished, only to scatter as Mecha fired off more spike-missiles. He couldn't catch them, though ... yet.
"Son-iic... " Even being pulled by the arm Tails still had to move his feet, and he was gasping for breath now.
"Die." Mecha stomped towards them, and almost hit Knuckles with his flamethrower's blast. Knuckles rolled out of the way and came up running, regrouping with Sonic and Tails.
"Sonic." Knuckles tried not to show how worn out he was. "Can you do a Chaos Relocate?"
"Yeah, I've got maybe one or two left in me ... " Sonic shifted his grasp on the green Chaos Emerald.
"Then take us up to the tower." Knuckles sideyed Mecha as he spoke. "If we can draw on what's left of his power source, it might give us a fighting chance."
Sonic broke into a run as Mecha tail-swiped at him again, and Knuckles followed. "What makes you think we can figure out how?"
"We learned how to use our chaos fields to fling you, right? It's worth a shot."
Safely away from Mecha for the moment, Sonic considered that, then looked down at Tails. The fox was panting and sweating, his tongue hanging out of his mouth, but when he noticed Sonic's gaze on him he nodded. "Let's do it," Tails said.
"Okay, then." He motioned to Knuckles, who took Tails' other hand in his as Sonic held out the emerald. "Chaos Relocate!"
* * *
They appeared on one of the platforms in a flash of light. Mecha roared his anger, but did not immediately charge. Instead he turned aside, stooping to peer under the rubbish covering the deck. He was looking for Shadow and gnashing his teeth together.
"Sonic, look!" said Tails. Sonic and Knuckles paused and watched the dragon stalk back and forth across the deck.
"Why can't he leave Shadow alone?" Sonic muttered. He stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled. Mecha ignored him. Instead he bellowed, "Mekion, I command you to show yourself!"
Mekion was hardwired for obedience--it was the Second Law. He slowly stepped out from behind a broken turret, setting Nox on the deck. "Stay there," he hissed at his chao. Then the black hedgehog resolutely walked out to face his judgement.
Metal Sonic pointed to a spot in front of him, and Mekion slowly walked up to stand there. He lifted his head, blinking through the falling rain, and looked up at his Master. Inside he was sick and numb--he had broken the First Law. Mekion had been doing his best to destroy Shadow's mind ever since, and Shadow was exhausted and beaten, grieving over what he had done. He sank to his knees, looked into Mecha's glaring red eyes and said, aloud and over the network, "Master, please ... please forgive me."
Metal Sonic crouched, placing his deadly clawed hands on either side of Shadow and bringing his massive jaws within biting distance. "You have proved that you can disregard your programming whenever it suits you," he growled. "You have now betrayed me for the third time. Why should I show you any mercy?"
Mekion looked up at the vast blue head, the silver teeth, the red eyes, and saw his own death written there. There was nothing he could say in his own defense--he knew what he had done. "I don't deserve mercy," he whispered. "Because that's what mercy is."
Metal Sonic hesitated a split second, weighing his anger against any mercy still remaining in him. But he had none toward Mekion. None at all.
Mecha grabbed Mekion in his teeth, shook him like a rag doll and hurled him away across the deck.
Then Mecha rose to his feet, licked his teeth, and strode toward the tower where Sonic, Tails and Knuckles had watched all this in horror. The deck began to vibrate.
"We don't have much time, Sonic." Knuckles was looking down at Mecha. "Go take a look down in that pit. He looks ... um, hungry."
Sonic ran over to the inside edge, still reeling with shock and anger, and Tails haltingly followed him. The fox went down on one knee when he reached the edge of the pit, still panting for breath and clutching at his side.
Then he looked down, and stared.
Two pillars stuck out of the central pit, the remains of the biometal that had formed Mecha's legs. But two stories below them was a teeming mass of quicksilver. It covered the whole bottom of the gutted tower, a pool of metallic liquid. It glowed a soft blue and violet, and shifted and rippled like thick milk.
"Cool," Tails breathed.
"You said it," Sonic said without taking his eyes off the nanites.
"That stuff's alive, Sonic."
"We aren't gonna be, in a second here!" Knuckles pointed over the other side, where Mecha was starting to scale the tower, shaking it to its foundations.
Tails looked at Knuckles for a second, then back at Sonic. "What do we do now?"
"I dunno ... jump in?"
Tails' eyes widened. "Sonic!"
"Remember when we were at Lava Reef, and you threw all the super emerald miniatures into the lava, and it solidified beneath us?" He sounded robotic, as the deck's vibrations shook up his voicebox.
"Yeah ... " Sonic was keeping an eye on the place where Mecha would come up.
"Try that! It's worth a shot."
Sonic's eyes flicked between the edge of the platform, and the green emerald in his hand. He might die doing this ... or kill all of them. Chaos-powered nanites being given a chaos emerald? It couldn't end well. He felt himself begin to sweat with the tension, caught between a charging enemy and this vast, unknown power. Then, just as Mecha was nearly on top of them, he threw the ruling green emerald into the nanites.
The dragon arrived just in time to be blinded, as another brilliant pillar of light shot up from the tower's wreckage. A Chaos Emerald was far more powerful than a lightning bolt, and the chaos field put out by the nanites was spectacular.
Mecha shielded his face with his arm. He squinted at the three Mobians, and saw them only as silhouettes in front of the light. Then he had to blink, as the organic membranes of his new, biometal eyes could not adapt to the sudden transition from darkness to light. His systems changed themselves around to compensate, and a clear fluid began coating his eyes, rubbing in as he blinked.
"Ssstupid hedgehog ... " Mecha hissed, still shielding his face and trying to make out what they were doing.
The hedgehog himself glanced over at him, then looked at Knuckles. "Think this'll kill me?"
"Not any more than he will!" Tails pointed at Mecha.
"Alright, then ... " Sonic took them both by the hand. "Concentrate, just like when you were swinging me. One, two, three!"
He jumped in. Mecha swiped at them a second too late, and they were engulfed in the blue-silver flame.
Now Tails was blinded. He shut his eyes and put up his hands to block out the glare, and it felt like a thick, staticky cloth was clinging to him, pressed back by the onrush of power. It took his breath away it was so startling, and when he tried to breathe again he found that he couldn't.
He tried not to panic. What was going on? He opened his eyes and saw a bright, golden curtain of energy in front of his face, semitransparent and shimmering in between him and the pillar of light he was in.
It was his chaos field. He didn't know how he knew that, but it made his heart leap. He could see his own chaos field, and it was protecting him from the silver flame just outside.
But how to control it? All of two seconds had passed now, and beside him Knuckles was floating in his own field of energy and pushing it outwards from him. The fox tried that too, pushing his hands and feet against it, but it wasn't until his tails twitched and started rubbing together that his chaos field responded. It pressed outwards almost immediately, solidifying into a bubble and letting in air.
Tails drew in a deep breath, and as he did so his exhaustion left him completely. He felt his head clear and the ache in his side go away, as a feeling of pure energy filled the inside of his chaos field and made him want to run as fast as he could. He'd gone Super twice before, and this felt almost like it, except that he knew that the power was outside of him, not inside. Knuckles seemed to have stabilized his own field, too, and took a few seconds to marvel at it.
Then Tails looked up, and gasped. Sonic had not just shifted his chaos field. He'd gone Super completely.
Sonic had been around emeralds since he was little, and used them naturally. For awhile he'd even had a 'residual charge', when his field was energized by a worldwide flux. In short, his chaos field was stronger than both of theirs put together, and instead of polarizing against the energy it had absorbed it. Now he was glowing the same golden-yellow as their fields, quills charged as if with electricity and standing up on end. And he had a manic grin on his face.
The pillar of energy went out. Tails could see through his forcefield, and its glow helped light up the outside. But he was still floating in midair, and he could feel the acceleration as he began to move, orbiting close around Sonic.
"Hey ... " He blinked. "This is just like when we did that covalent bond, Sonic!"
"The what?" Knuckles held his arms out to balance, as he began to move as well.
"We went Super at the same time. It was kind of like this." Sonic held out both hands as if willing Tails and Knuckles to stabilize, and they did. Then they all looked down at Mecha.
His watery eyes were narrowed at them, and glowed a bright red.
He flipped his tail up over his head, lightning fast, bringing its tip down on them like a scorpion's stinger with a two-foot metal spike at the end. Super Sonic was faster, though, dodging one tailstrike and flying under the next, slamming right into Mecha's face so hard that it knocked him off of the tower.
Mecha fell for a whole second, impacting with the deck with a thud more organic than metal. His tail twitched, and his arms moved feebly.
Tails raised his fist in the air, brushing the top of his field. "You did it, Sonic!"
Super Sonic grinned, and looked down at his foe from the top of the wrecked tower. "Had enough?"
Knuckled frowned. "I don't think so."
Mecha had to make an effort not to groan as he got up, even though his movements were clumsy. Two great knobs on his back broke apart, as though they'd been shattered by the impact. But then second later huge metal spikes shot out and locked in place, with a sound like swords unsheathing. They were thicker than bone, but shaped like the skeletons of wings. A second later a thin sheet of nanite-fiber grew out and filled in the gaps between the spines, creating bat-like dragon wings.
As soon as they grew out Mecha flapped them, beating the air and lifting off from the deck. Then he darted over the side of the Annihilator, flying away from the ship as swiftly as a hunting falcon.
Tails stared, and pointed. "He's getting away!"
"Is he trying to escape?" Knuckles asked.
"No." Sonic's eyes narrowed. He leaped off the tower and flew after Mecha, pulling Tails and Knuckles along with him. "I know where he's headed."
The sky was dark. It was past midnight, and the golden radiance of their chaos fields was the only light. They could see deep blue cloud banks above and below, sometimes rippling with lightning and reflecting the glow of their chaos fields, and the clouds above continued to sprinkle rain down on the Mobians.
The clouds swept past them as they flew. Super Sonic was rushing forward with the speed of a jet towards the human colonies, the other two invisibly tethered to him. And ahead of them was Metal Sonic, a distant speck they could barely make out by its movement, and the red reflection of his eyes on the clouds around him.
He was far ahead of them, still. But they were gaining on him.
When they could make out his wings and tail clearly he noticed them and looked back. "I was wondering when you'd catch up, Sonic!"
Tails had run into Mecha a few times before, and it chilled his blood to hear him call Sonic by name. Sonic didn't seem too upset, though. "Aren't you short one battle fleet?" he called out.
"Fool! I have long known the destruction that can be wreaked by one individual. You nearly defeated Robotnik by yourself!"
If Sonic was still hurting from having thought he'd killed Robotnik, he didn't show it.
"But I did defeat him!" Mecha went on. "I did what you could not! And I took over his ships, his robots, and his very identity. But the Egg Fleet was never my primary means of attack. It was my backup plan! Because you are almost as good at destroying things as I am, and I knew you would do something to it. My loathsome copy!"
He had turned around partway to shout at them. They were almost on top of him now.
"Take it from me," Knuckles called out. "You're the copy. Not him."
"What do YOU know?"
"I helped build you, remember?"
Mecha swiped at them. But they had already darted aside, Knuckles and Tails swinging in their orbits. Super Sonic sped forward and rammed into Mecha, but Mecha blocked the blow with one arm and swatted the three away.
"You're useless now that I've made myself stronger," he snarled, now hovering in midair and tracking them with his eyes. It was easy for him, because they couldn't split up. "I may not be able to kill you, Sssonic, but I will destroy the humans. And the peace conference. AND your princess. And there is nothing you can do to stop me."
"Like heck!" Sonic's face turned red. "Tails, Knuckles. You guys ready?"
"Ready for what?" Tails was confused.
"We're gonna use our chaos fields to beat him." Sonic lowered his voice. "All together, just like before, except this time we'll all swing at him instead of just one of us."
"Yes!" said Knuckles, grinning.
Sonic took them by the hands, and Tails instantly felt ready and energized. The high altitude winds were still rushing against them. The dragon was still out there in front of them, and the sky was still dark and clouded. But they were all shining bright in the darkness, and Tails knew that they couldn't lose.
They charged at Mecha, and Sonic let go at the last second, swinging them in their forcefields and using their momentum to slam all three of them into Mecha over and over again. Mecha clawed at them wildly, tail lashing, but he did no damage even when he connected, and he continued to thrash even after they'd stopped.
Shaking with rage as the three of them regrouped, Mecha spun around and detached every spike on his body into a flurry of missiles, which swerved around and sped at them. Then he flew on toward the colonies while still facing them and regrowing his spines.
Tails' eyes widened in shock, but as the storm of missiles shot at him he flew, spinning his tails around and darting in quick bursts to evade. He and Knux were still tethered to Sonic, but they were starting to learn to control their flight. The three of them dodged through and around all the missiles, moving faster than Tails thought they could.
It took almost one second. And no sooner had they finished than the dragon opened his jaws and breathed ice at them instead of fire, huge chunks of crystal too blue for water and too fast for them to dodge.
They flew around the jet of ice barely in time. Tails was hit by a chunk of ice bigger than he was, and his forcefield took most of the blow. It dazed him for a second, and he shook his head to clear it, surprised that he was still conscious.
Sonic saw this and took his hand, helping him dodge the next volley. Mecha was shooting them off fast, even while flying backwards. And he was making good time towards the colonies.
"This is not going well..." Tails was starting to tire again, and they were all having trouble keeping up with Mecha.
"We can't dodge forever, Sonic!" Knuckles hollered.
"We'll just have to plow through, then!" Sonic took Knuckles's hand as well, and shot forward as fast as he could. The air heated up around him like a comet, and when the next shards of ice came he drove into them, breaking them apart and veering up at the last second to hit Mecha in the forehead.
Flying that close to the dragon's maw scared Tails half to death. But he was safe, he was flying, and the rush was exhilarating. "We're gonna beat him, Sonic!"
Mecha was starting to realize that, too. And it was driving him mad. No matter what he did, that hedgehog was still winning.
He refused to clutch at his forehead, no matter how bad it hurt. It felt like it was going to implode from the pain and the anger. He used it, focusing on his own chaos field and the energy the nanites had given him. He let out a scream that turned into a cry of rage.
And time stopped.
Mecha saw that he was within four miles of Rio Del Fuego, the colored lights tantalizingly close, but he did not fly for them. He went into a dive, tearing down through the clouds, rolling and banking on air currents.
He came out a few hundred feet above sea level, the vast ocean beneath frozen in midwave. The shoreline was up ahead, and here the lights were smaller and more scattered; the odd streetlamp or beachfront house.
Mecha's eyes swept the lights as he skimmed over the water towards them, and settled on a fishing boat. It was long but hollow, as its holds were empty and its crew was at home. It would be easy to carry.
He swooped down and lifted it straight out of the water, shifting its weight in his claws as he flew back into the clouds and leaving a boat-shaped impression in the water, next to the dock.
The clouds were still parted where he had cut through them, and a thin sheen of water remained on the boat's underside. Droplets of it flecked off as he flew, filling in his trail behind him. Finally he reached the top of the cloud bank and flew towards Super Sonic. A cocky grin was still on Sonic's face.
Mecha swung the boat and splintered it over the heads of Sonic, Tails and Knuckles. They went flying and came to a halt not too far away, but were in for a rude awakening.
Mecha released the remains of the boat just over their heads, letting it hang in midair, then flipped around and flew for the colonies as time restarted.
* * *
Sally had been on live television for the past half-hour, helping co-ordinate the Mobians who were going to man the shield generators. She was exhausted from sheer nervousness, and her palms were sweaty from having to hold the violet emerald for so long.
The human broadcasters could tell what kind of condition she was in, and so they'd called for a commercial break. She sat in back of the studio on an oversized director's chair, watching and waiting for her turn to go back on the air. She was thirsty, but their water tasted of chlorine, and the only other thing they had to drink was coffee.
She didn't want coffee. Sally's nerves were shot enough as it was.
"Look at this!" someone called out, and she jumped. Another man came over to the studio consoles behind the set, one of the producers, and looked over the technician's shoulder.
The technician tapped the screen. "We're getting this feed from the air traffic control radar. They don't know what to make of it."
He started pressing keys as Sally walked over to see what it was. The screen showed a radar display, with an image linked to a glowing bright signal by a thin line. It looked like a dragon, but the design was too mechanical, too streamlined.
Too much like Metal Sonic, Sally realized, and she knew that Sonic was dead.
The TV producer squinted at it. "An advance scout of some kind?"
"No ... " And that was all Sally could say before she ran, so the humans wouldn't see her crying.
* * *
Sonic, Tails and Knuckles went flying from both the blow, and the impact of some object hitting them from above. They spun and twisted crazily in midair, as the bond that connected them stretched and sprang back like elastic.
"Aaaah!" Super Sonic struggled to right himself, but kept getting smacked in the face by both Knuckles and Tails as they sprang back at him. The fox spun his tails, and Knuckles tried gliding, until finally they got themselves straightened out properly.
"What happened?" Knuckles called out. It was raining hard now, and he had to raise his voice to be heard.
"I think I saw ... a boat?" Super Sonic scratched his head.
"My nose is bleeding." Tails' voice sounded muffled.
"Pinch it," Knux told him.
Lightning flashed in the distance. A few seconds later the rumble of thunder struck them like a shockwave of sound. Sonic scanned the clouds and ocean for Mecha, his eyesight enhanced by the emerald's power, but Mecha was long gone.
"Metal Sonic's gonna make it there ahead of us, isn't he?" Tails asked.
Sonic clenched his fists. "No."
* * *
Sally ran up the stairs to the top of the TV studio building, and went out the door onto the roof. It was pouring rain, but she didn't care.
The building's roof was wide and made of concrete. It was one of a handful of skyscrapers in the city, and towered over the river of neon lights far below. It was in line with the others along the coast, and that was why a shield generator had been built on top of it.
Nobody took notice of her. The human technicians were too busy turning knobs and plugging in wires, and the family of Mobian capybaras they'd rounded up to help with the shield was too scared. Sally hurried to the edge of the roof to could scan the horizon. That dragon was on its way, and she wanted to see it first.
Sally didn't know what she would do when she saw it. She only knew that she had to see Mecha, and that if he was here, and Sonic wasn't, then Sonic was probably dead.
Or injured. Or stalled, or held somewhere. She knew those were all possible. But she also knew that Sonic wouldn't have let Mecha get close to the city. Not if it was within his power.
Sally heard the dragon roar, far out over the sea and through the sheets of rain. She turned to look towards it, and the Mobian family's baby started to cry.
The sound brought pent-up tears to her eyes. But she didn't want to be overcome with despair! Not now, not yet. Her face contorted as she choked back her tears, and she clutched the emerald tight in her hand.
* * *
Mecha flew back through the clouds in a wide circle, flew in over land, and approached the first city from the north.
Rio del Fuego, they called it. River of Fire. Metal Sonic would lend new meaning to the name. He let out a hunting roar as he flew in over the suburbs.
Its main street was built on both sides of the river, and was lit up with neon lights and digital signs. Just past the river on either side were taller buildings, the centers of legitimate commerce and finance. The skyscrapers.
Skyscrapers would be fun to destroy. He flew at the nearest clump of them and slowed down, claws spread out wide. He would tear the tall buildings to pieces, and perched on top of their ruins, he would rain devastation on the rest of the city.
But while he was approaching, he noticed a violet glow coming from the top of the building.
Then he was struck by lightning. He recoiled, his insides stinging and ears ringing from the blast.
Mecha's systems were insulated, so it did not hurt him much. But it struck him again and again, every few seconds, arcing over and through his armor and leaving him in great pain. Mecha had never been attacked by a swarm of bees before, but now he knew what it felt like.
He was barely able to avoid smashing into the building, and continued to writhe in pain. If he saw the rain-drenched squirrel on top of the building, holding her Chaos Emerald out and glaring at him in hatred, he was too preoccupied to do anything about it.
* * *
Sonic, Tails and Knuckles were flying over the ocean, heading towards the lights of Rio del Fuego. Tails' nose had stopped bleeding, but his fur stood up on end as the sky became filled with static electricity. Then he jumped as lightning bolts flashed out over the tops of the buildings, illuminating the horizon. "Wh-what is that?"
"He's destroying the city." Sonic turned towards the lightning and flew even faster.
The lightning continued, and Sonic's vision blurred with anger. He'd failed. People were dying. Sally might be one of them.
But he would destroy Mecha.
He sped forwards, oblivious to the real target of the lightning bolts. They stopped as he caught sight of Mecha, flying low and slowly, no doubt pulling back for a fresh attack. Sonic lowered his head and charged, flying like a self-propelled missile. Mecha saw him coming and turned to face him just as Sonic crashed into Mecha's jaw.
Even more tired from using the emerald, and blinking as her vision faded back in, Sally stared at the glowing yellow being and forgot about striking Mecha. She raised one fist in the air, and let the tears flow.
Behind her, the humans turned on their shield generator and began calibrating it, and its lens cast a soft green glow on the rooftop.
* * *
Mecha's jaw was dislocated and nearly torn off. He pushed it back into joint, forcing the biometal to accept it and ignoring the ache.
The air was filled with rain, and smelled of ozone. Steam was trailing out from between Mecha's joints, because his internal systems were on fire. The nanites that made up his new body were shaken and battered, and according to his sensors, the humans were activating their defenses.
But he would destroy Sonic.
Super Sonic charged at him again. Mecha caught him in one hand this time and swung him around, hurling him towards the skyscrapers.
Sonic pulled himself to a halt just before he hit the top railing of the TV station. Knuckles and Tails could not stop, being swung by their covalent bonds, and smacked into the energy shield above the generator. The air shimmered in a rippling greenish curtain, as Sonic turned and saw Sally looking up at him.
"You're not dead!" they exclaimed, Sally in delight and Sonic in surprise.
"I feel like a pinball." Knuckles put both hands to his head.
Mecha spat a burst of jagged, half-formed ice crystals at them, and the three darted out of the way. On instinct Sally raised her arms, but the Mobian family was helping to power the shield now, and the ice shards bounced off it. Their baby was no longer crying.
"Look out below!" Sonic yelled as the ice fell into the street below. A pedestrian dove out of the way of the shattering ice, and one chunk smashed the hood of an SUV, setting off the alarm. People stared.
Tails' eyes widened. "We'd better get Mecha away from here, pronto!"
"You said it, Tails." Sonic took him by the hand again, and they were off.
* * *
Sally watched for the next couple of minutes as Super Sonic and Mecha went all out. Sonic dodged and weaved to throw off Mecha's guard and hit him in the chest, and Knuckles and Tails swung around to batter Mecha from behind.
The rain began to stop. People emerged from the buildings to watch, heedless of the danger. And the sky echoed the sounds of crashes, bangs, Sonic, Tails and Knuckles's shrill taunts, and Mecha's furious roars. They'd already led him out to the suburbs, and were now leading him close to the shoreline.
Mecha was huge, metal and blue, and the city lights lit him from beneath, casting a sinister glow on his features. But Super Sonic shone with his own golden radiance, and he and his friends were invincible. And all across the city, the shield generators were powering up.
Sally jumped as one of the humans came up behind her. "We're now operating at three hundred percent strength, Miss Acorn," he said.
"Princess Sally," she corrected him, feeling more like a princess now that someone was fighting for her.
"Yes." The man nodded, unruffled. "The energy your people are putting out is making the shields much stronger."
"Do we have full coverage of the city yet?" she asked.
He thought for a moment, then held up his hand before leaving. "I'll check."
Mecha spat more shards of ice at Sonic, and Sonic and his friends plowed through them, the shattered fragments to raining down on the streets. The air glowed green over the suburbs as the ice impacted the shield, but after stopping there for a second it fell through.
Sally looked down at her emerald. They were going to need even more power.
* * *
"I am Metal Sonic!" Mecha shouted at them. "I am the real Sonic!"
"You do know you just contradicted yourself!" Tails called back.
Their images were on every TV set in the city, as news vans and helicopters raced to follow them from a safe distance. Giant plasma screens outside the casinos showed everyone in the streets what was happening, where the skyline obstructed their view. And the audience laughed, even the humans, as Sonic reached through Tails' shield and ruffled his headfur. Tails grinned, sheepishly.
Mecha launched another volley of missiles, this time at the city below. People gasped and running for cover. Sonic, Tails and Knuckles sped downwards to knock the missiles out of the way and destroy them, but they had only a second to act.
Up on the roof of the TV studio, the family of capybaras were holding hands, as the father and mother held their palms on top of each other on a metal plate to the side of the shield generator. Sally held her emerald tight and drew on its power, and placed her hand on top of theirs.
The missiles bounced off of the shield, flying crazily back upwards and detonating in midair. Mecha's attack turned into a fireworks show, and the people below cheered.
Mecha was seeing red. Because of the shield flickering, and because of the explosions, and because Sonic was humiliating him. Again.
And his anger made him easier to defeat.
Mecha swung his claws and tail wildly at Sonic, and the hedgehog and his friends kept pummeling him. They continued leading him on, pushing and pulling him towards the shoreline, and all the while making his sensors ring with the sounds of his own metal crumpling.
Finally Sonic dove through one of Mecha's wings, and it buckled, collapsing in on itself. Mecha toppled towards the ocean as he fought to keep himself airborne, his good wing flailing.
"I DESPISE you!" he cried. "Ssss-"
Suddenly Mecha was weightless. He could not swim, as the freezing cold water shocked his nervous system and hindered his movements. It jolted him back to coherence, and with it came the realization that his new body had an unfortunate limitation. He could not breathe, he was sinking, and was going to drown.
Not breathing hurt more than he thought it would. What was he supposed to do now?
The nanites that made up his dragon-form were dying. But they still had some life in them, some residue of Chaos energy. He drew on them now, and blorbled the command underwater. "Chaos relocate!"
* * *
The Chaotix scrambled back up the stairs with Robotnik's weapon, carrying it carefully after what Espio had told them about the nuclear battery. Robotnik huffed and puffed up the stairs after them, and had to lean against the wall to rest several times.
"I should ... have installed ... an elevator!" he panted.
"Don't ask us to carry you," Vector told him.
Finally they reached the upper deck. They didn't have to set up the cannon. Mighty just held it and waited.
What they needed was a target.
"What do we do if he doesn't show up?" Charmy asked.
Mecha appeared in a flash of light not ten feet from them, water pouring from every joint as he struggled to right himself. He was so close and so enormous that he seemed to cover the whole deck, and the Chaotix took a step back as his teeth snapped together.
Mecha rolled over on all fours, lifted his head and looked at them, his crimson eyes glittering in hatred. His eyes swept them, and halted on the weapon in Mighty's hands. A square cannon with a wide muzzle, and with two cannisters screwed into the top.
No ... it couldn't be ...
"Shoot him!" Robotnik cried. "Shoot him!"
Mighty pulled the trigger and swept the cannon back and forth. A jet of aerosol-like mist sprayed Mecha in the face and covered the rest of his enormous body. His armor liquified and melted as the poison began eating the biometal.
He screamed, and the Chaotix and Robotnik clapped their hands to their ears. Mecha thrashed in agony, slapping the deck with his tail as his tail disintigrated. Amy Rose had come up just behind the Chaotix, and she watched, horrified.
The Chaotix were nauseated, and hurried to a safe distance, ready to bolt if need be. Robotnik went with them, gleeful that his machine had worked so well.
Mecha, on the other hand, hurt.
His original form had stayed deep inside the dragon, like a flicky (or chao) pilot inside an E-series robot. One by one his new nerve endings were eaten through as the parts they were connected to dissolved. He tried to disengage himself and get out, but the dragon could no longer let him. Its systems were fused and disintegrating.
He did not have a readout to tell him the damage. Instead he felt more and more disoriented until he was alone in the dark, inside a deathtrap.
Metal Sonic clawed his way out of his surrogate body, swimming through the dragon's liquid biometal, finding his own systems stiff and unresponsive after laying still for so long. Mecha's body was covered in poisoned liquid metal, and the poison ate him as well, dissolving his own armor and eating its way into his systems. It hurt so badly that he hated his new body, and he clawed at himself in panic, wishing to die if that would stop the pain.
The poison went inert after several long seconds. Mecha didn't know when he'd managed to pull himself out, or when the dragon had dissolved completely. He only knew that he couldn't see out of his left eye, the side of his head was beginning to throb, and every inch of him was burning with pain.
The Chaotix cheered, and Mecha tried to control his trembling, knowing that they could see him. But that didn't change the fact that the war with Sonic was over. And he'd lost.
* * *
"Chaos ... relocate!"
Super Sonic appeared back above the deck of the airship. Tails twirled his tails and Knuckles swept his hands out in front of him as if he were swimming, and both of their shields vanished as they landed on the deck.
It had started raining again, and Tails' fur was instantly soaked. And with his chaos field no longer supercharged, he felt lightheaded all of a sudden. He looked up at Sonic, a drowsy smile on his face. "Sonic?"
"That was fun."
"Darn straight it was." Sonic grinned.
"Can I go back to the hotel now?" said Tails, rubbing his eyes.
"In a few ... "
Knuckles walked over to greet the Chaotix. They slapped each other on the backs, then Knuckles pointed and said, "You do know Robotnik's trying to run off on you." Robotnik was tiptoeing away across the deck in the direction of the hangers.
"That slimeball!" Vector ran after him.
"Where's everyone else?" Knuckles asked.
"They're all downstairs," Espio told him, while watching Vector chase Robotnik out of the corner of his eye. "Amy popped up here for a second, but I don't think she could stomach what happened."
Espio pointed and Knuckles looked. There wasn't much left by then, however. A lumpy quicksilver puddle was all that was left of Mecha's dragon form, swirled with silver, blue and red, like spilled paint. And lying beside it was Mecha. He wasn't moving.
Knuckles raised his eyebrows. "Anyone have a stick we can poke him with?"
Tails shivered. "I'm not getting near him."
Sonic was not listening to them. He had won, and he was still Super. But all of a sudden he was leery about approaching Mecha, even though it seemed like he should.
Mecha had been destroyed before. And subsequently rebuilt. But Sonic hadn't been the one who had had to deal with the remains.
* * *
Mecha wasn't dead yet, of course. He was listening to the conversations going on nearby.
The Chaotix must think that they had killed him. Right now they were chatting with Tails and Knuckles. Any minute now they were going to send someone to finish the job.
Not to rebuild him. Robotnik had done that once. So had the Freedom Fighters. But Robotnik was no longer inclined to do things for Mecha, and neither was anyone else. Not even Shadow.
He had imagined what it would be like to lose, before. He would defy Sonic until he was destroyed, and his last clawing struggles would leave scars on the hedgehog's body forever. "With my last breath I stab at thee," the humans had written. And somehow, he'd always known it would come to that.
But he was not prepared for this ... agony.
His new organic body was not merely damaged, and he was not receiving sterile damage readouts. He was dying, and every part of him seemed to burn. Inside his armor he was alive, his new systems complex and near-liquid, and the thought of those complex systems being torn apart filled him with terror. He had never imagined that death was so horrible, but then, he had never died.
Footsteps approached. He was facing away from them, but he saw golden light on the deck plating, shining and reflecting off of the rain.
Super Sonic. The terror inside of him grew with the knowledge, and it made him want to scream. But why was he so frightened? Was it some new instinct, telling him that he couldn't be salvaged? Or was it simply cowardice?
He hated not knowing. He hated these new feelings, especially the pain. And he hated not knowing when Sonic would kill him.
* * *
Tails, Knuckles and the Chaotix went on chatting and slapping each other on the back, as Super Sonic edged closer to Mecha over the slippery deck.
Mecha was laying flat on his stomach, head turned away from Sonic. Were his eyes still glowing? If not, then-
Mecha jumped at him!
Or reached up and clawed at him all of a sudden. Sonic jumped back, heart racing, as Mecha struggled to hold himself up on one elbow.
Mecha looked horrible. His legs did not work, and the whole side of his face, the one against the deck, looked like it had been torn off. Chips of metal broke off his hands and arms every time he moved, and a thick fluid dripped out of the air intake in his stomach.
The eye that was still worked flickered as it looked up at Sonic. "Destroy me," Mecha hissed.
Sonic glanced to either side, as if hoping Mecha was speaking to someone else. "Okay ... why?"
"Because I am in pain," Mecha told him through clenched teeth. "You have defeated me, Sssonic. And even if my damaged systems could be repaired, I no longer have any interest in fighting you. Because I am sick of being beaten, stomped on, and humiliated!
"You came here to destroy me, did you not? Then do so. Now."
* * *
Mecha found himself breathing fast, even though each breath hurt. But Sonic just stared, as if he'd been struck dumb. And it made Mecha furious. How could the hedgehog just stand there?
"Is that not enough for you?" Mecha yelled, over the rain. "What more do you need? My flagship is doomed. I am disabled. No doubt you will destroy my fleet." He spat the words in contempt. "I have nothing left to oppose you with!"
The others were watching them. Mecha was humiliated to have so many people watching him while he was in this state. Sonic continued to stare.
"I surrender!" Mecha shouted. "Why will you not end this?"
It occurred to him, as he glanced down at himself, that his insides were dripping out through his air intake. The stuff on the deck beneath him were his body's vital components. Terror returned full force, and he pressed his free hand to the wound.
Sonic backed away from Mecha, as if he were the one who was scared.
"Make it stop," Mecha begged him, as the hedgehog turned tail and ran. "Please!"
His right eye was not injured. But the new ducts that he had grown in the fight were starting to pour fluid into it, and he had no idea why.
* * *
Sonic ran past the Chaotix, not knowing where he was going, but having to get away from Mecha. His flight carried him across the deck, and his yellow glow illuminated a black object lying among the debris. With a horrible jolt Sonic remembered Shadow.
Sonic rushed to the other hedgehog and stooped over him, panting. Nox was there, his little body slick and glistening in the rain. "Hello Sonic," said Nox solmnly.
Sonic couldn't speak. Shadow's organic and metal body was hideously mauled, and his red blood and clear nano-fluid mingled in a pool under him. On his chest the blood and nano-fluid had clotted together, and it didn't look like he was bleeding anymore, but he was so mangled that Sonic couldn't make sense of the wounds.
Shadow was clutching the red chaos emerald in his organic hand, and as Sonic stooped over him, Shadow's organic eye opened and blinked in Sonic's glow. He bared his teeth. "Get away, hedgehog. Look what you've done to me."
"Shadow," said Sonic, and stopped, at a loss for words.
The black hedgehog struggled to sit up, his digital eye flickering on. "Master," he whispered. "Where is he?"
"He's over there," said Sonic, looking in Mecha's direction, still in shock. "He's kind of bleeding to death."
Shadow looked up at Sonic with livid hatred. "You destroyed him, didn't you? I tried to stop you--I tried!" He grunted as he struggled to his feet, but his robot leg didn't seem to work. "Take me to him," he snarled at Sonic.
Sonic put a hand under Shadow's organic elbow and helped the black hedgehog limp across the deck, toward the others and the mass of biometal that had been a dragon. Nox followed at their heels, shivering in the rain and wind.
As they reached the others, Sonic saw the rest of the group emerging from the little tower. Amy came first, followed by Cream, Monty and Big. Amy looked pale.
Shadow ignored them--his attention was fixed on the motionless blue figure in the puddle of dead nanites. He threw off Sonic, ran the last few feet, and collapsed beside Mecha. "Master," he whispered, "we are defeated."
Mecha's head turned, and his one red eye glared up at Shadow. "Traitor."
"No Master, I--"
"Traitor!" snarled Mecha. "All is lost now. The attack will commence in twenty minutes. The humans will die, I will die, you will die, everyone on this ship will die. The Annihilator is loaded with explosives in all the lower levels. Its mission is to crash itself and destroy as much property as possible. I did not intend for it to come to this, but it was my plan in case of defeat."
There was a stunned silence.
"Sonic," Amy pleaded, "we have to do something!"
"Yeah," Knuckles put in. "Destroy Metal Sonic."
Sonic thought of the dragon Mecha had been, trying to kill Sally. And the time Mecha had kidnapped Serena. And all the times Mecha had attacked Sonic, leaving Sonic with scars that he still carried. But Sonic found himself shaking his head anyway. "I can't."
"Any reason why not?" Knuckles folded his arms.
"Because I feel sorry for him, okay?" Sonic snapped.
Mecha shook his head, clawed the deck and screamed in pain and anguish, the broken, choking scream of a person dying in the depths of despair. Being pitied by Sonic was a fate worse than death!
Sonic shut his eyes, knowing that that scream would haunt his nightmares for years. Tails' fur stood on end. Cream tried to cover her ears.
Knuckles alone did not flinch. He looked from Sonic to Mecha and back, and absently brushed rainwater out of his eyes. "All right then, don't destroy him," he said.
Espio appeared, hurrying across the deck from where he had been looking over the edge. "Y'know," he said hesitently, "the fleet's almost to Rio del Fuego."
"Oh, no!" Amy covered her mouth, and looked like she was about to become sick again.
Tails' tails swished. "We've got to destroy it, Sonic!"
"How?" Sonic asked. "Even if I can stay Super the whole time it'd take me at least an hour!"
Shadow heard all of this, and stared down at his broken, dying master. Beside him, Nox was gingerly touching Mecha's mangled arm, and backing away. He turned to Shadow and said, "He danced in fire, too, didn't he? Trapped in that machine."
"Yes," whispered Shadow, looking down at the red emerald. The emerald of fire and destruction.
How appropriate, he thought. He could use it to teleport out, but he didn't really want to. It didn't seem right, when so many other people were going to die. Slowly he turned his emerald over and looked into the top, the widest facet. From this angle, the only power he could sense was destruction, as far down as he could reach.
A wild thought came to him. What more glorious death was there than to perish in fire and take the entire Egg Fleet with him! The old fever returned and burned within him, making him sweat. But now he knew what it was. When he had been healed of his bullet wounds, the healing nanites had woven the power of the red emerald into his body. Touching the emerald set off the power within him -- the power of heat, fire and destruction.
Nox looked up at him. He could sense it as well. And in that instant, they both knew what to do.
Shadow looked at Sonic and the others, and interrupted their panicking. "Take your companions and leave this ship," he said. "I'll destroy the fleet myself."
"What?" Sonic gave him a weird look. "How?"
"I will detonate this emerald," said Shadow, holding it up. "I am not certain how widespread the destruction will be, so go now. Far away." He looked at the motionless Mecha beside him. "Take Master with you."
Mecha gave Shadow an unreadable look. Sonic stepped forward, but hesitated. Knuckles pushed past him. "I'll carry him." He walked up, crouched and carefully picked up the bleeding android. Mecha did not struggle or make a sound. He could not fight anymore.
"Shadow, don't kill yourself, please," said Sonic, shaking his head. "Not again."
Shadow met his gaze. "Do as I say, Sonic. I am in pain and would die anyway. Besides, I will finally be free of Mekion."
"Go on, you heard him," said Nox. "I'll look after him."
Sonic looked at the chao for a long second. "You'd better make sure he survives."
"He did last time," said Nox. "And the stakes were even higher then. Now get out of here!"
Super Sonic held his hand out for someone to grab onto. Amy moved in fast, but Big stepped in front of her without thinking. Then came the others, the Freedom Fighters and the Chaotix with Robotnik in tow. Cream ended up holding Tails' hand, prompting her to blush and making Tails wince.
Knuckles freed a one arm and took Sonic's other hand. His glove was sticky with liquid metal. "Take us to the Floating Island, Sonic. We'll be safe there."
"Wait!" a female voice called out. Heads turned down the line to see Rouge, limping towards them with what looked like a broken arm.
"Oh, no." Knuckles rolled his eyes. "Do we have to take her?"
She elbowed her way in anyway, joining hands with Vector and Mighty. Mighty had her broken arm, and an evil smile came over him as he considered the possibilities. Rouge got the wrong idea, however, and smiled right back.
"Well, that's settled then..." Super Sonic held the emerald out. "Chaos Relocate!" The group vanished in a massive flash of light, leaving a mangled black hedgehog and a small chao alone on the flight deck.
"How is it that you were Omega?" whispered Shadow, fingering his emerald.
Nox tilted his head to one side. "I suppose I'll have to explain it from the beginning, since you don't remember.
"No, don't let him," whispered Mekion. Mekion's control had dropped to 30% in the presence of severe physical pain, and Shadow was on top for once.
Shadow ignored his other half. "Go on and make it quick. I must do this before the point leaders reach the mainland."
"Right," said Nox. "I know you have records of the ARK."
"And of your death."
"And of Nox, who died."
"Nox only regressed."
Shadow frowned. "And that means?"
"Chao don't die unless mortally injured," said Nox. "And most of the time, they simply develop backwards into an egg and are reborn a while later. I was young and strong, and I gave you all of my strength and life to keep you alive. I died. Then I regressed, and your Master kept my egg as a curiosity."
Shadow's memory was blank, but Mekion's records matched this account. He had seen the egg in an incubator in his Master's lab, although he had thought nothing of it at the time.
Nox nodded. "I hatched and Mecha told me that you had died. I lost my will to live. So Metal Sonic put me into an E-series robot and banished me to guard a stasis pod, never letting on that Mekion was Shadow under another name."
"And here to you are," said Shadow. "It's a pity I can't remember all this. And now we will both die."
"But it's fire," said Nox, gazing at the red emerald. "Chaos fire. It won't hurt me. That's what I am. Go ahead," he added, setting his round paws on Shadow's leg. "Destroy it all. It's all right."
"I'm sorry you have to die," whispered Shadow, turning the red emerald over and over. "Goodbye, Nox."
Shadow gazed in the top of the emerald, letting himself sink into the fire, deeper than he had ever dared go before. The heat in his body grew until his fur glowed a dull red, and he began to gasp for breath. He needed more power. The fleet was large and spread out. He had to reach them all. The fire inside him rose to an inferno, and his robot half began to smoke. It was like being super, except with the power of pure destruction. Nox's claws dug into his leg. The deck grew hot beneath them, and all of Shadow's previous pain was swallowed up in the pain of power overload--but it was a glorious pain and he wanted more.
Shadow did not consciously decide when he had enough power--he knew when he had reached his limit. He slammed the emerald down on the deck and hissed in his broken voice, "Chaos destroy!"
The power exploded from the emerald and Shadow's body in a wall of white-hot fire. Nox instantly transformed from a black chao to a golden phoenix as he absorbed the power, and he laughed. He did not fear fire. He danced in fire! He kept his hold on Shadow as the fire shot straight up and widened into a sphere, growing wider and wider like a nuclear explosion, burning the clouds and incinerating every ship in its path. Some exploded before the fire struck them, their bombs overheating inside them. Others were knocked spinning by the preceding blast of wind travelling in front of the explosion, and were annihilated seconds later. The fire rolled on and on, consuming and destroying everything, rushing toward the mainland, blasting the ocean, clearing the clouds.
Out of the heart of the inferno rose a phoenix carrying a black shape in both claws. Shadow felt its fiery power pouring into him, and stared down into the destruction he had caused. How was he still alive?
The phoenix carried him higher and higher, its four wings giving it extra lift and its tail streaming behind it like a comet. Nox was laughing in sheer delirious joy. They outdistanced the fire and shot into the clouds, Nox's glowing body illuminating them like lightning. Then he whirled and dove, skimming over the top of the fire, playing with it. Then he pulled in his wings and said, "Chaos relocate!"
He and Shadow vanished from the sky in a flash of light.
* * *
Sonic and his companions materialized in the tree-scented darkness of the Floating Island. "Where'd you put us, Sonic?" asked Knuckles, peering around. Their eyes were dazzled from the Egg Fleet's lights, and none of them could see a thing.
"Marble Gardens," Sonic muttered in his friend's ear. "We have Mecha and Robotnik with us, and I didn't want them at your house."
Knuckles slapped Sonic's shoulder, pleased. "Good man." He turned and said, "Vector, Mighty, guys, come here." They stepped up to him, and he said in a low voice, "Stay here and keep an eye on Robotnik and Mecha. I don't want them taking off on a whim, not here." He raised his voice a little. "My threat to Mecha about destroying him if he sets foot on my island still stands, if he tries to get away. Hear that, Mecha?"
The robot turned his head and looked at them miserably. "Affirmative," he whispered.
Amy, Cream and Big walked up. "What do we do now?" asked Amy. "Are you going to send us home?"
"Not now," said Knuckles, who was recovering his night-vision and taking charge of the situation. "We'll take you up to the house and you can stay there. I need to find Zephyer." They joined hands, and Sonic teleported them to Chaotix Central.
The porchlights of Knuckles's house were on, but the windows were dark. As they stepped up on the porch, Sonic realized that Rouge had come with them. She was looking at Knuckles with an odd expression.
Her expression grew still odder when Knuckles opened the door and Zephyer met them, the Master Emerald miniature in one hand. "Knuckles!" said Zephyer, looking at the crowd behind him. "What's going on?"
"Evacuees from the fleet," said Knuckles. "The kids need a place to stay for the night."
Zephyer's eyes moved past him to Rouge, who was staring at her with raw hatred. She looked at Knuckles. "All of them?"
"No, only these three," said Knuckles, motioning to Amy, Cream and Big. "How about you, Tails?"
"I'm good," said Tails.
Zephyer looked at Knuckles in silent urgency. "I was kind in the middle of something. I have to be at the island's edge in two minutes. Don't ask."
His eyes narrowed, but he said, "Okay, fine. We can manage."
Zephyer fled the house, and Knuckles went about finding blankets and sleeping bags. He hadn't realized Rouge had come until Zephyer left, and he thought he knew why she had run for it. He was half-inclined to run, too. Rouge kept watching him like a lion watching a steak.
As soon as the two kids and cat were comfortable, Knuckles got out of there. Sonic, Tails and Rouge followed him down a dirt trail to the teleporter receiver plate, then up an even narrower trail toward the island's edge. The sky was lighter there; they were facing the western horizon, and Sonic pointed. The lights of the Egg Fleet spread out like a multicolored galaxy. But the sky had a washed-out look, as if there were bright lights somewhere.
They found Zephyer leaning on the stone wall that rimmed the island here, the Master Emerald glowing yellow in her hands. She looked up as they approached, almost frightened.
"So what are you doing?" Knuckles asked.
She shifted her weight from foot to foot and looked at Rouge, whose lips were pressed in a thin line. "I was ... uh ... Sally called me, and ... well, look."
Knuckles leaned over the wall and peered downward, as did Sonic, Tails and Rouge. "Hey," said Sonic. "This isn't safe.
They were looking straight down into the rainbow sea of lights that was Rio Del Fuego. They were in line with the coast, and they noticed that there were bright green lights set up at intervals along the beach. Between each light shimmered a glowing haze. Knuckles looked at Zephyer with a bemused smile. "Okay bright girl, what have you done now?"
Zephyer squirmed, trying not to look at Rouge. "It was Sally's idea. The shield generators are left over from the biotic war, and Sally wanted to turn them on but they don't go high enough to deflect an air raid, so I offered to use the Master Emerald--" She paused for breath.
Sonic and Tails were catching on. They looked from Zephyer to Rouge and back, and glanced at each other. Zephyer was never twitchy like this, and now they knew the reason why.
Sonic tapped Rouge on the shoulder. She glared at him, and he pulled her away from the echidnas. "Worried about Shadow, huh?"
"Oh--yes," said Rouge, eyes straying back to her old crush and his wife.
Sonic put himself strategically in the right spot to block her view. "I still think kidnapping me was extreme, especially when Shadow could Chaos See, too."
"That was a mistake," said Rouge, noticing the incoming fleet for the first time. "Oh my gosh, look at that!"
Sonic winked at Tails, who winked back. There was a certain humor to the situation.
Knuckles and Zephyer watched Sonic distract Rouge, and Zephyer whispered, "What's she doing here?"
"We evacuated everybody, good and bad," Knuckles whispered back. "Robotnik and Metal Sonic are in Marble Gardens with the Chaotix guarding them."
Zephyer stared. "You didn't."
"Shadow says he can destroy the whole fleet. We brought everybody."
"Well, I won't kill you for that if you don't kill me for bringing the island here."
They embraced, and Zephyer clung to him. "I knew you were out there risking life and limb. I had to do something. The waiting was killing me."
"Well, we're okay," said Knuckles, releasing her. "What Master Emerald command are you using?"
"Island defense," said Zephyer, holding it up. "How was Shadow going to destroy a whole airfleet?"
"By committing suicide with the red emerald," said Knuckles grimly. "There wasn't time to say anything, but he could destroy the world by doing that."
Zephyer looked out at the fleet and clutched the Master Emerald. "Oh no. Not again. How's Sonic?"
"Cheerful," said Knuckles. "He talked to Nox, and Nox said he'd save Shadow."
Silence fell, and they gazed out at the fleet, which was spreading across the sky like a glittering cloud. Zephyer lifted her communicator and flipped it on. "Sally?"
"I'm here," came Sally's voice. "The shield is up. How's your end?"
"Working," said Zephyer.
Sonic turned, hearing Sally's voice, and ran up. "Can I talk to her?" he said, holding out a hand.
Zephyer handed him the com. "Warn her about Shadow."
"Right. Hi Sal, it's me!"
"Sonic!" Sally's voice was suddenly muffled. "How are you? Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Sal, everybody's fine. We evacuated to the Floating Island after one heck of a fight. Listen..." He detailed Shadow's plan.
Sally listened in silence until he had finished, then said, "Do you know if there will be a shockwave from the explosion?"
"I donno, Sal. Nobody's ever done this before. As close as the fleet's getting..."
"Maybe the shield will deflect it. If not, I'll try to use my emerald to defend us."
"Right." Sonic looked worried and glanced at Zephyer and Knuckles. "She's never done this," he whispered. "I don't want her to get hurt."
"So go down and help her," said Knuckles. "And maybe take certain people with you."
Sonic glanced at Rouge. "Okay." He returned the com to Zephyer and walked back to Tails and Rouge. "I'm going to the mainland to oversee defense. Wanna come?"
"Yeah!" exclaimed Tails.
Rouge said nothing--she was watching Zephyer again. Sonic grabbed Rouge's arm and teleported before she knew what had happened.
They appeared on the sidewalk in a flicker of light that was drowned in the glare from neon signs and streetlights. After the quiet darkness of the Floating Island it was a mild shock. As Sonic and Tails stood there blinking, Rouge pulled away from them with a scowl. "Tell your echidna friend that I'm not finished with him yet."
"You leave them alone," said Sonic, shaking a warning finger. "You go after Zephyer and you'll have all of us after you."
She sniffed and trotted away down the street. Sonic glanced at Tails, whose eyes were wide. "You think she will?"
"Who knows," said Sonic, shaking his head. "Let's find Sally."
The old generators were set up along the coastline for the length of Rio Del Fuego. There were 120 of them--one every quarter of a mile--and they had been maintained in case they were ever needed. Now as Sonic and Tails ran from generator to generator, hunting Sally, they saw crowds of Mobians standing around each machine, talking and looking worried, each with a hand on the top lens. Above them, the shield itself shimmered like water, reflecting the city lights.
They found Sally in the crowd around the center generator, which was the biggest and set with three lenses instead of one. She was gazing out at the incoming ships with a communicator in one hand, and didn't notice Sonic until he touched her arm. She jumped and turned, smiling. "Sonic! Tails! I'm so glad you're back!" She hugged them both.
Tails circled off around the generator, marvelling at its design, leaving Sonic and Sally alone. Sonic looked at the violet emerald in Sally's other hand. "What are you going to do?"
They were interrupted by a gasp from the crowd around them, and they looked out at the fleet. There was a flash of light near the horizon that exploded up and outward in a ball of fire and smoke, rising higher and higher, wider and wider, a shockwave of superheated air travelling in front of it. Aircraft exploded in yellow points of light as the blast struck them, and still the blast and shockwave expanded, rushing toward them over the ocean in a wall of destruction.
Aircraft that had been nearer the mainland than anyone guessed suddenly exploded, revealing their positions. And now they could hear it--a crackling booming roar like a furnace gone mad.
People broke and ran, but Sally yelled, "Stay at the generators! Keep the shield up! It's our only chance!" They returned, bringing their precious chaos fields with them, and the faltering shield flared up strong.
The shockwave struck the shield, which shuddered and shivered, absorbing the chaos energy. The generators whined as they were forced to absorb huge amounts of power, and for a second the shield received a supercharge.
But the actual blast was still coming, and if the shockwave had charged the shield, then chaos blast would overload the generators and destroy them. Sonic took Sally's hand, lifting his green emerald as she lifted the violet one. "Together," he said, and they drew on their gems in their own ways.
Sally increased her resonance with the emerald, and felt something like a vibration inside of her, yet not a vibration. She pushed it and pushed it, her vision fading to white like she knew it would. The resonance increased, humming in her ears and chest. She had no idea what she was doing, and only Sonic's grip on her hand kept her from panicking.
"Let it go!" Sonic yelled, his voice barely reaching her through the interference in her head.
Sally released the power and felt it leave her in a blast of sound, and wind whipped at her and knocked her down. Sonic pulled her back up, yelling, "Whoa, look at that! Look at it! Sally, you're a genius!"
She was blinded by the power and could only cling to him, listening to the cries and cheers from the crowd around them. "Sonic, I can't see," she said. "What's happening?"
"We counter-blasted the blast!" Sonic exclaimed. "I used wind and you used lightning, and it surged out and hit the other wave, and they cancelled out before it hit the shield! That was incredible!"
But it wasn't over yet. Burning ships carried by the blast struck the shield, exploded and dropped to the ground like burning napalm bombs. "Everybody get back!" Sonic yelled, dragging Sally with him. "Watch out, get back, quick, quick!"
Up and down the length of the city, aircraft were being swept in and colliding with the shield. Flaming debris littered the roads and beaches, and everyone fled except for a core group at each machine, who huddled behind them and kept them running. Sonic and Tails both slapped a hand on their generator to contribute some energy, and when Sally's vision returned she saw them there, gazing defiantly at the incoming debris.
She climbed to her feet, put a hand on the generator and watched as the fleet crashed into the bay in long streamers of fire. The sky still held an orange afterglow, and the center of the explosion was still burning white-hot. Suddenly, out of the heart of the fire rose a bright burning star. It shot straight up in the air like a rocket until it was clear of the smoke, then vanished in a flash of light.
Sonic leaped in the air and whooped. "Nox! That was Nox! He did it! He saved Shadow! Ha ha!"
"You mean Shadow triggered that explosion himself?" said Sally in horror. "He was at ground zero?"
"Yep, but Nox was there."
"Sonic, nobody could survive that!"
Sonic turned to her, eyes sparkling. "Sally, what have I told you about chaos?"
Sally thought. "Chaos never repeats itself?"
"Exactly! There's hope for you yet, Sally. Shadow died once by overusing chaos. So it only stands to reason that he wouldn't die again doing the same thing."
Sally put a hand on her hip. "Sounds to me like you're grasping at straws."
"Call it what you want," said Sonic, grinning out at the fire on the horizon. "I'll call it hope and leave it at that."
* * *
Stone ruins poked out of the landscape, buildings and columns and huge chunks of rock, casting long shadows away from the campfire. Marble Gardens was full of hiding places. But Robotnik was too large to hide in any of them, and Mecha too injured.
Vector warmed his hands by the fire the Chaotix had set up, about fifteen feet off. "Can you fix him?" he called out.
"Be quiet!" Robotnik snapped, and shone his flashlight more closely on Mecha's head wounds. Metal Sonic's red, working eye dilated, and looked away as he did so.
Robotnik cursed. "What have you DONE to yourself?"
"Lost." Mecha felt very subdued.
"Look at this mess. Bio-organic circuitry ... I couldn't repair this even if I wanted to." Robotnik had gotten his glove messy prodding Mecha's wounds, and snarled as he wiped it off on the grass.
Mecha's eye narrowed at him. "I wouldn't make you even if I could."
Robotnik got up and kicked him, then walked back to the fire with the Chaotix. He knew better than to escape.
"Hey, watch it!" Vector stood up. "No damaging the robot, there! Knux built him, ya'know."
"I built him!" Robotnik shouted.
"Yeah? Well, Knuckles helped." Vector folded his arms, and Charmy flew up beside him to reinforce his glare.
Espio came back with the hot dogs just then, and they set about sharpening sticks and roasting their late dinner--or breakfast. "Don't think you get any," Mighty told Robotnik.
"Not even one?"
"Sure ... for ten thousand Mobiads."
They laughed. Mecha looked out over the rocks and low hills. He wasn't sure what he was feeling right now, and he was far enough away from the fire that he didn't have to listen to them.
A mile off was the rim of the Floating Island. He could not see the city, but he could see the top half of the Egg Fleet. His fleet. Flying there in the sky, thousands of pinpoints of light in the distance, it seemed so much smaller than when it was parked on the ground.
But it was his. His fleet. For the next few seconds.
He knew it was coming, even braced himself for it. But when the Egg Fleet erupted in a huge ball of flame, it was so final, so completely ended, just like everything else that he'd ever done. Hadn't he done everything he could? Why did Sonic have to win, in the end?
"Because he's superior," Mecha whispered to himself. The thought overwhelmed him, and his vision blurred as more fluid welled up in his good eye.
His creation still called him Master. But Shadow had still betrayed him. Mecha had nothing left now but himself, and that not for long.
He continued to watch as the fireball impacted the shield. The light reflected off of his face and the tears in his eye until the fire went out. The Chaotix all cheered and called for more food, but their voices grew more and more distant to Mecha, along with the rest of the world.
It occurred to him that he was becoming very detached, and that his senses, even the pain, were dulling themselves into nothingness. A jolt of fear shook him -- was this what dying was like?
A sigh. Let it come, he decided. And his eye dimmed until it finally winked out, as Metal Sonic fell fast asleep.
* * *
It was two weeks later.
Espio beamed down on the Floating Island's receiver plate and walked up the trail to Knuckles's house. Instead of entering, he circled around to the back yard, where lawn chairs were set up under the shade of a spreading tree. Sally and Zephyer were already there, and looked up as he arrived. "Hello ladies," he said, sitting down. "Where is everybody?"
"Late, obviously," said Zephyer. "Although Knux has no excuse--he's in the house somewhere."
"I came in lieu of the rest of the Chaotix," said Espio. "We're swamped in cases now that the story of us beating Mecha with mail-order parts is out."
"So working for Robotnik hasn't hurt your business?" said Sally.
"I thought it would," said the chameleon, "but apparently it only proved that we're nonbiased about customers. Is that lemonade?"
"Mango juice," said Zephyer. "Secret recipe."
"Better try some," said Sally. "I'm trying to drink the whole pitcher."
Espio poured himself a glass of the yellow liquid and slurped it. "Whoa, good stuff!"
Knuckles emerged from the house and trotted out to them. "Sorry about that," he said, sitting down beside Zephyer. "Sonic called to say he'd be late. He's found Shadow."
Everyone straightened up.
"He did?" said Sally. "Where?"
"Some hospital up north that specializes in android repair," said Knuckles. "He got an anonymous phonecall. From Nox." They all chuckled. "Anyway," said Knuckles, looking at Espio, "how much did Doc pay you?"
"Two hundred mobiads each," said the chameleon in disgust. "He promised ten thousand! Next time we meet I'm going to squeeze some cash out of him, the cheat."
"Did Robotnik take Mecha when he snuck off?" asked Sally.
"No," said Knuckles. "He just left Mecha behind. So we rented a chamber for him at that nanite-hospital downtown. I didn't know what else to do with him. He was actually in pain, and I think he's lost the will to live. He kept telling me to kill him, that it was kinder than letting him live."
"I never saw Mecha as the surrendering type," said Zephyer, shaking her head. "Seeing him like that was ... I don't know. I don't think I'll ever be afraid of him again."
There was a long pause, and they all sipped their drinks, silently saluting the fall of their old enemy.
"Did Amy and Cream get home okay?" asked Sally.
"Yep," said Zephyer. "Cream's mom reached Rio Del Fuego all in a fluster because the tour group had to keep moving, and they hadn't had any word about where Cream and Amy had gone. And as soon as she got here, the police jumped on her and took her to her daughter. I don't think she quite believes Cream and Amy's story about everything that happened to them. They took Big on the rest of their tour. Amy wouldn't leave him behind."
"Sounds like Amy," said Espio, grinning.
There was a pause, and the four enjoyed their drinks. Sally checked her watch. "I have until two-thirty. Then I get burned at the stake."
"What?" said Zephyer.
Sally rested her head on one hand. "It's a long story. The senators are ... forcing me to give control of the government to them, for certain reasons. Today I break it to the other leaders, and we'll set up an official date for the press conference."
"After you set up that whole defense thing?" said Espio, leaning forward. "What do they have for brains? Rocks?"
Sally shook her head and pushed her hair back. "I had a few things in my life that I refused to change. Especially after that thing with the Egg Fleet. I'm a Freedom Fighter, not a politician."
Her friends looked at her a moment in shocked silence. Knuckles said, "Does Sonic know?"
"No. I wasn't going to tell him until it was over with."
Conversation turned to other topics, then at two thirty Sally excused herself and walked out to the teleporter. She would rather face a firing squad than the politicians who would gleefully strip her of her authority. In a way she was glad that Sonic didn't know. It would be easier to step down if he wasn't there to get indignant on her behalf.
But in a corner of her heart, she wished he knew anyway.
* * *
Sonic arrived panting at room 9 in the Mercy Machine Hospital, and was stopped by a nurse who asked him what he was doing. "My friend's in there," said Sonic, pointing at the door. "I thought he was dead, but I got this phonecall--"
The nurse looked him up and down, then nodded. "All right, go in. His chao won't stop asking about you."
The door opened and Sonic stepped inside. This hospital was more like a factory, with steel doors and rooms full of repair machinery. For semi-androids they had the usual hospital bed, but there was still a repair machine looming over it like a razor-leafed plant. Sonic hesitated a second, then walked to the foot of the bed.
Nox, the black chao, was sitting on the blanket with a book. "Sonic!" he said, smiling. "Thanks for coming! Here he is, Shadow."
Shadow opened his eye, and Sonic stared. Shadow's organic half was in fairly decent shape except for some bandages. His organic arm was bandaged from fingertip to elbow, for touching the red chaos emerald at the second it released its energy had burned him terribly.
His robot half was dented, crushed and burned. His glass eye had broken out, exposing the machinery behind it, and his robot arm on top of the blanket was wrapped in a blue cocoon of some plastic substance. "Hello Sonic," whispered Shadow. "Nox wanted me to see you."
"Well? Do you remember him?" said the chao.
"No," whispered Shadow. "I don't remember anything."
Nox looked at Sonic. "Well, I do, so don't worry. The red emerald kept wiping his mind every time he used it. And the last time it wiped everything. He was allergic to it, kind of."
"How did you destroy the fleet like that?" asked Sonic.
Shadow didn't answer, so Nox said, "You really don't want to know. The red emerald is very, very bad and powerful."
"So I've gathered," said Sonic. "Oh yeah, in an anonymous phonecall, you're not supposed to tell the person your name."
"Rats," said Nox. "I'll know better next time."
Sonic looked at Shadow for a long time in silence. "How long until he's better?"
"The doctors say one to three months," said Nox. "But it might be sooner. Shadow has so many healing nanites in him that he's recovering at double speed. They have to order some non-nano parts, though. Like his eye."
"Tell them to deactivate Mekion," said Sonic, eyes narrowing.
"I did," said Nox. "Right now, Mekion's personality chips are totally fried from the emerald, but when they get repaired, they're gonna set his control to one percent, if they can."
"Good." Sonic sat down in the visitor's chair. "Shadow, are you still awake?"
"Yes," said Shadow without opening his eye.
Sonic laced his fingers together and looked at them. "This won't make much sense if you don't remember anything ... but Metal Sonic is in a hospital, too. In Rio Del Fuego. He's ... suicidal and heavily damaged. Um ... yeah, that's all."
He looked at Nox, who nodded. "I'm his memory for now. He won't forget."
"I don't know what you guys can do," said Sonic. "I'm not up on therapy or anything. It's just sad to see Mecha like that."
Nox cast Shadow a knowing look. "Who knows. Of course, if Mecha gets fixed, he might come after you again."
"No," said Sonic quietly. "Mecha won't ever come after me again."
The door opened and the nurse looked in. "Sir, your time's up. Shadow needs his rest."
Sonic rose to his feet. "Take it easy," he said over his shoulder, and
* * *
"So we ended up not having much work to do today. I stayed in the workshop to put things up ..." said Tachyon's voice through the phone.
"Mm-hm." Slasher tapped one toe claw against the floor.
" ... Perry just about got himself electrocuted ... "
" ... so I had him clean up the scorch marks, and then we played paintball in the woods behind your house. Don't worry, I'm sure it'll wash off."
Slasher blinked. "You were playing paintball?"
"I was the referee." A pause. "So how's your trip going?"
She just sighed.
Slasher stood in one of the Central Mobius's hospital's waiting rooms, cradling the receiver of a pay phone in both foreclaws. Her nostrils felt dry from the cold, sterile air, and her tail just barely touched the double doors down the hallway behind her.
A couple of couches were set up to one side, with magazines stacked up on coffee tables, and a TV in the corner was tuned to a news channel. They were still showing interviews of random people in the area of Rio del Fuego, and politicians promising to do more to combat terrorists.
The door behind Slasher brushed her tail as it opened. She turned to look, and her eyes widened as she recognized the newcomer.
"I don't suppose you're planning to come home anytime soon?" Tachyon said in her ear.
"I'll call you back, okay?" Slasher's eyes tracked Robert, the elderly rabbit from Carrotseed. He waved, as he walked past her and towards Samantha's room.
"Okay ... "
Slasher tried to hang up the phone, but her foreclaws kept slipping for no apparent reason. She finally just took it in her teeth and dropped it onto the cradle, before running into Sam's room.
It was quiet in there, as the television was muted. The news station on this TV showed footage of the Egg Fleet exploding, just as Robert walked in and waved. "Hello!"
Bandages covered one side of Samantha's face, and she had her leg in a cast, suspended from the ceiling. She had been resting in the hospital bed, covered up and nearly dozing off. But she looked up when he came in, and gasped.
Slasher came in right behind him. "How the HECK did you get here?" she and Sam both asked.
"I walked," he told them.
"Nice try." Slasher stalked over to the other side of Sam's bed, and turned around to face him. Her tail hung out of the open window. "Alright, you, let's hear it. We know you were on the Egg Fleet when it exploded."
"Actually, no." He had his hands in his pockets. "I got up to the deck right when that big dragon-thing turned the ship to one side, and it blew me right over the railing. I sort of fell through the air for a sec, before falling right through a hole in the side of a damaged airship and landing on the mattress inside a prison cell."
Samantha and Slasher exchanged glances.
"Naturally, I thought this would be a great place to spend the next few hours. But then its engine just sort of blew out, and before I knew it we were in the ocean and taking on water." He yawned. "My only hope was for a talking dolphin to come by just then and save me. And sure enough ... "
A porcupine stuck his head in the door behind him. "Delivery for Miss Cartwright," he said.
"Oh, yeah." Robert jerked a thumb in the porcupine's direction. "I got those for you."
Sam nodded to the delivery boy, and he came in with a large bouquet. A get well card was pinned to it, with writing in flowery script.
"Aww ... " Samantha tried to reach up and take it, but her arms were connected to IV lines and monitors. Slasher took it gently in both foreclaws and handed it to her. Then she stepped out of the room, after hearing them talk for a moment.
The raptor shook her head as if in dismay, before settling down in the waiting area just next to the couches. Destro had come back from the vending machines by then, and chewed on a stick of spiced meat while sideying the door to Sam's room.
"Did you see all that?"
"Yes." Destro kept eating his snack, not saying anything else besides that.
"My flight back to Knothole leaves tomorrow," Slasher told him.
He nodded. "It's been fun."
She gave a short laugh, which sounded more like a bark. "Sort of."
"At least you get to go back to your village. I have to train him now." Destro indicated the door to Sam's room.
"Yeah." Slasher nodded. "Good luck."
Destro nodded, too. "Oh, he's got plenty of that."
* * *
It was dusk six weeks later, and the casino lights were just flickering on. A black hedgehog walked down the sidewalk with a slight limp, a chao on his shoulder, camouflaged against his owner's black spines. Shadow carried a folded coat over one arm, even though the weather was well over a hundred degrees. There was a look of deep melancholy on his face, if one could look past the glowing robot eye.
He ignored the casinos and turned onto a less-gaudy street, reading the names on the buildings. He stopped before a tall white building with airlock doors. This was it. The Nanotech Hospital. He drew a quick breath and entered the airlock. The doors closed behind him, the air pressure equalized, and the inner doors opened.
Beyond was a waiting room, white and sterile, with a moving nanite-sculpture in the center of the room under a glass dome. There was no one else waiting, but as he entered, a white-clad human surgeon entered the room. "Shadow?"
"Yes," whispered Shadow.
"Come with me," said the surgeon, and Shadow obeyed, feeling Nox's grip on his shoulder increase a tiny bit.
"The patient will need constant care once he is released," said the surgeon. "He is suicidal and self-destructive, as we discovered when we tried to release him once already."
"Yes," whispered Shadow. "I understand his problem. I will care for him the best that I can."
They were walking down a long hallway with detoxification chambers every few feet. Shadow tried not to stare.
"His injuries were extensive," said the surgeon as they stepped into one of the chambers. "Oh yes, this will only take a moment." A jet of ice-cold gas blasted them from above, then fans roared on and sucked it away. The inner doors opened, and they stepped through into the actual ward. It was a room lined with stasis chambers. However, these were white, clean and ultra-modern, making Robotnik's pods look like some kind of fungus sprouting in a swamp at night. There were all kinds of patients in them, but Shadow averted his gaze. He was growing a marked dislike for stasis pods.
"As I was saying," said the surgeon, "his injuries were extensive. There was a sort of acid eating him from the inside. We had to cut off all the infected metal--if it was metal. I've never seen such a substance."
"Biometal," whispered Shadow. "Experimental alloy."
"Yes," said the surgeon. "The metal had to be removed before it reached the patient's vitals. It would have eaten through his brain, heart and lungs. He is a very advanced android, by the way. Did you create him?"
"No," Shadow replied.
When he said nothing else, the surgeon continued, "We couldn't replicate the biometal, so we stretched the uncorrupted metal as far as it would go. But he needs specific chassis repairs that we lack the facilities to provide."
"His internal workings are in order?" said Shadow.
"Yes," said the surgeon. "Like I said, he is only in a suspended state because of his self-destructive tendencies."
They came to a halt before an isolated pod. Shadow didn't want to look in, but he had to. With his own recovery had come all of his memories, especially without Mekion's hindrance, and he had mixed feelings about seeing Mecha again at all, let alone in his skeletal state. Mecha had disowned him and attacked him, and had tried to kill Nox. But Shadow was willing to forgive Mecha for it. He gathered up his courage and looked into the pod.
Floating in the fluid was a strange creature, neither robot nor organic. Mecha's arms and legs were bare wires and tubes, his hands and fingers merely strips of jointed metal. His head and body were covered with such a thin layer of biometal that it was transparent, and Shadow could see Mecha's heart beating, still pumping the nanite-blood through his frame. Mecha's head had lost its spikes, giving the impression that he had been shaved. Only his right eye and half of his muzzle had escaped damage, and he wore an expression of resolute despair even though he was unconscious.
The surgeon was watching Shadow. "Do you still want to release him, sir?"
"Yes," whispered Shadow, feeling even more melancholy. "I am all he has left."
The surgeon drained the pod, and Mecha settled into the restraints inside. His remaining eye flickered on as he was rinsed and dried. He saw Shadow and immediately looked down, avoiding his gaze. Shadow watched, drawing comfort from Nox's weight on his shoulder, and wishing that Mecha had not come to this point. Not Mecha, of all people.
The lid of the pod opened. Mecha tried to stand up and step out of the pod, but the few biofiber muscles he had left were too weak to lift him. He held his head up instead and met the gaze of his creation. "Hello Shadow," he said quietly.
"Hello Master," whispered Shadow.
Mecha glared at him with an echo of his old personality. "Do not call me that again. Ever. My name is now Mecha-bot two. My surname 'Metal Sonic' is obsolete."
"Yes, Mecha," said Shadow, stepping forward. He gently took Mecha's arms and lifted him out of the pod, setting Mecha's feet on the floor. Shadow felt Mecha clutch at him, and realized that Mecha's legs wouldn't support his weight--what little weight there was. Mecha scarcely weighed thirty pounds.
Shadow felt tears burning behind his natural eye, but blinked them back. His powerful, invincible master could not even stand without help. Shadow lifted the coat he had brought in and draped it around Mecha's shoulders, hiding the grusome damage and exposed skeletal structure. Then Shadow knelt and lifted Mecha in his arms with the odd feeling that he was lifting a small toy. Without skin or armor, Mecha was only three-fourths Shadow's size. Mecha accepted this treatment without a word.
Shadow carried his master through the hospital on the heels of the surgeon, signed the release papers, and carried Mecha outside into the warm, deepening night.
Mecha opened his good eye and looked at Shadow. Over the network he said, "Is Mekion still operational?"
Shadow replied over the network, "He has been repaired, but his control is locked to one percent."
"But you can hear me."
"Good. Destroy me. It is the kindest solution for both of us in the long run."
"No Mecha," Shadow replied, eye narrowing as he looked down at his master. "You're going to pull through this. You never let me succumb to weakness during training, and I'm not going to let you succumb, either."
Shadow carried his companion to a street corner, where they waited for ten minutes. Right on time Rouge appeared, dressed in black and looking anxious. Nox was improving at his anonymous phonecalling.
"Shadow!" she exclaimed, hurrying up. "You're alive! How--?"
"Did you bring the orange emerald?" Shadow hissed.
Rouge pulled it out of a pocket. "Yes, here it is. How did you survive?"
"I saved him, duh," said Nox from his hiding place on Shadow's shoulder.
Rouge jumped and noticed him for the first time. "You? But how?"
Shadow reached into a pocket on Mecha's coat and withdrew the red chaos emerald. He handed it quickly to Rouge and wiped his hand on Mecha's coat, as if the gem's touch was painful. Then he took the orange emerald from her and fingered it. "The exchange is over," he told her. "I am now leaving to attend to my Master."
Mecha made a growling sound at the word 'Master'.
Shadow went on, "If I have further need of your services, I will contact you. Do not try to find me."
"All right Shadow, I understand," said Rouge, her eyes full of questions. She watched as Shadow cocked his head and turned the orange gem over and over, studying it. Then he whispered, "Chaos relocate," and he and Mecha vanished.
Rouge did not see them again for a long time.
* * *
That same evening, Sonic was walking through the streets of Rio Del Fuego with a heavy feeling in his stomach. He and Sally had had to stay there to help patch up the panic over the two attacks, and although he wanted to go home to Knothole, it wasn't home without Sally.
The politicians had moved from the UA building to the mayor's office for meetings. Sonic knew Sally had one last meeting this evening, and he wanted to see it. The heaviness in his stomach increased as he climbed the front steps and walked inside. Sally had done such a good job playing ambassador and leader over the past month and a half--and he was kidding himself by loving her. There was no room in her life for anything but work.
He had watched her from a greater and greater distance since the defense of Rio Del Fuego, when for a moment they had fought side by side. He would always love her, but they were too different. He couldn't give up his lifestyle. Running was who he was. He could no more give that up than grow wings and fly. And Sally couldn't give up her position, so their relationship just wouldn't work. Sonic told himself that he was okay with that. Loving someone meant being big enough to let go, right?
He climbed the stairs to the conference room, and he could hear her voice through the doors. He circled around and entered through a side door, taking a seat in the back. Sally was so focused on what she was saying that she didn't notice him.
"After the attack on Metrocard, we were all concerned that such a thing might happen again. We feared another Robotropolis. And barely a day later our worst fears came true. A strike force led not by Robotnik, but by Metal Sonic, attacked our shores with total destruction as its goal..."
Sonic let her voice wash over him and watched her. So poised and passionate, eyes roving the audience as if trying eye contact with everyone. This was her environment.
He glanced around the room and noticed other things. Other political sharks waiting just offstage with strange expressions. That was unusual. The audience was composed of reporters who were extra-alert, almost tense. That was also unusual--usually the audience was composed of bored politicians who were thinking about dinner. He tuned into Sally's speech again.
"...and when the shield came down, I realized that I can never forget my roots. The Freedom Fighters made me who I am. Because of them, I can think on my feet and..."
Sonic frowned. This wasn't one of her usual speeches.
"...plan tactical strategies. It's my main strength--leadership in battle. Because of that, I lack the experience and patience for peacetime leadership." She paused for breath, and Sonic stared at her and the hungry-looking senators behind her. No way. She would never...
Sally plunged on. "And that is why I am stepping down from my position as Chairperson of the Senate. All executive power for the Great Kingdom now rests in the hands of its senators, and its distinguished Prime Minister. I will remain Princess for ceremonial reasons, but the monarchy no longer has any real power to govern." Her voice sounded hollow.
Ceremonial. No real power. Sonic stood up and sat down again as the room erupted into talking and cameras flashed. Why do that? They needed her! She was perfect! And she'd been training for years, what was she talking about? He wanted to jump up and make her take it all back, but he couldn't do that, so he stayed in his seat and fumed as she finished her speech.
She left the podium, and one of the Mobian senators stepped up to the microphone. "I would like to congratulate Princess Sally on her wisdom in stepping down of her own accord. I would like to add..."
Sonic half-stood and motioned to Sally. She shook her head at him and remained back behind the podium. He could see the tears in her eyes, and it infuriated him that she would do this to herself. She was listening to the senator, and Sonic did the same.
"As she said, the monarch will no longer hold the reins of government. She is no longer Chairperson of the Senate, and no longer has any voice in peacetime policymaking. From now on, our country will be led by the people's elected representatives.
"But throughout history, the kings and queens of the Great Kingdom have led our forces in defense. Princess Sally has continued this ancient tradition in our day, and her strategy and battlefield leadership have proven themselves countless times."
He smiled. "We believe that she should continue on in this capacity, as the Commander in Chief of the Great Kingdom's armed forces."
Sally's jaw dropped nearly to the floor. Sonic jumped up and yelled, "Yes!" then sat down again as everyone turned and stared. The senator smiled and finished his speech, then waved Sally up to the mic.
She stepped up, obviously stunned. "I'd like to say ... I'm honored that you would allow me this privilege. I accept wholeheartedly, and--and thank you." She stepped back and conferred with the other officials, then left through a side door.
Sonic met her in the hall. Sally was crying, leaning against the wall, and Sonic put an arm around her. "Congratulations, Sal! That was the bravest thing I've ever seen you do. But why the heck did you want to stop working in government?"
She looked at him, wiping her eyes. "They told me I had to either leave my position ... or leave you."
Sonic's face went blank. He had so convinced himself that she loved only her job that he couldn't grasp this new concept. He said it aloud, slowly. "So ... you picked me ... over your job?"
She nodded, fresh tears welling up. He held her as she cried, and began to guide her down the hall toward the doors. "It was so horrible, having to choose," she murmured, trying to get a grip on herself. She drew away from him, pulled a tissue from her dress pocket and blew her nose.
Sonic watched her in shock. She was willing to throw it all away for him. "But then they just shuffled you," he said. "Commander in Chief. So you get to play Freedom Fighter with the whole country's military."
"Compared to my previous position, it's like a vacation," said Sally, trying to smile. "I can't believe this ... God's been so good to me."
Sonic thought about proposing then and there, but decided against it. Sally couldn't make one more big decision right now, and Sonic needed to buy a ring and other things. No, he would bide his time and surprise her. After today, she was as good as his.
They went outside and simply walked, looking at the sights and talking. "You know," said Sonic, "it would have been okay if you had stayed a princess. I knew all along I was kidding myself, courting you when you had all that stuff on your plate."
Sally looked at him. "I take it you don't mean how that sounded."
"Oh..." Sonic fumbled for words. "If you had gone career chasing, I wouldn't have minded. But I'd have missed you."
He looked up to see she was smiling. "Sonic Hedgehog, you'll never be a poet. But I know what you mean. And thank you."